The stragglers are coming back one by one

A very fine and blue-skied London morning to you all ahead of today’s FA Cup tie against the Clarets.

We are the laggards of this year’s competition: Man Utd and Chelski are already at the very least 180 minutes ahead of us in their quests to get to the cup final. In a worst-case scenario, we could indeed be some 6 hours of football away from the semis. That would only happen if we staggered through both our 5th and 6th round ties after replays, a contingency everyone on Arsenal’s side of the aisle will be keen to avoid. I’m not sure how many more home draws I can take.

With the returning Walcott and Eduardo, Arsenal’s disastrous run of injuries – which have undoubtedly had a major part to play in our poor form – are beginning to ease. Walcott has been out four months – four months in which we’ve learned how to defend better but seemingly forgotten how to score.

Interestingly, and cockle-warmingly, we now have two quality options on the right wing in Walcott and Arshavin. For months we laboured there with nobody of right-wing quality and now we have two fantastic outlets. Where that leaves Emmanuel ‘Ooh Betty’ Eboue I don’t know. He ought to know by now that his position in the team is in peril, at least as anything more than a reserve. How he reacts to that is up to him but there are signs he has picked up the pace a little since his hilarious red card at the Spuds.

I haven’t got much more to add this morning, other than to point you to several articles about the importance to Arsenal’s season of the next seven days – including George Graham, Bob Wilson and Lee Dixon’s views in the Mirror here. Telegraph and Times too.

I will finish with an incentive for the Arsenal players, and that incentive is called the ‘Europa League’. The incentive, by the way, is to come fourth in order to avoid it like the plague.

You have to admire the bigwigs at Uefa for managing to make a second-rate competition even worse in time for next season. To me, it was a competition with an iconic name that had drifted away from its knockout roots so much that, with an unmanageably lengthy combination of knockout and league, teams were desperate to get knocked out of it.

So what have they done to fix this? Changed its name to the vapid ‘Europa League’ and turned it into the poor man’s Champions League. Why?

In my eyes, this is what they should have done: Kept its name, returned it to a straight two-legged knockout competition (which differentiates it nicely from the Champions League) and given the winners a place in the Champions League. Now that would be worth playing in.

But no, in all their wisdom, the Uefa Cup becomes the ‘Europa League‘ and as far as I can see it’s a Champions League Lite – but with an extra knockout round (last 32). The structure would be as follows (assuming Wikipedia is right):

3rd preliminary round – two-legged tie
Group stage – 12 groups of 4, home and away
Knockout stage – last 32
Knockout stage – last 16
Knockout stage – QF
Knockout stage – SF
Final

So for a team coming 5th or 6th in the Premier League, that’s 17 games to win it.

By comparison, the teams that come 1st-3rd in the Premier League will go straight into the knockout stage of the Champions League – so 13 games to play, maximum. The team coming fourth, I believe, needs to endure two preliminary stages – so 17 games, maximum.

My point is this: I know they are desperate to improve it, but by turning it into an identikit version of its illustrious big brother, only with less cash, more games and no Champions League at the end of it, I just can’t see it working.

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