Missing out on Champions League would be disastrous for Gunners

BY JEM MAIDMENT Back in 1996, after late goals from David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp in the final home game of Bruce Rioch s sole season in charge of Arsenal saw them come back from a goal down to beat Bolton 2-1, qualification for the Uefa Cup was greete


Back in 1996, after late goals from David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp in the final home game of Bruce Rioch's sole season in charge of Arsenal saw them come back from a goal down to beat Bolton 2-1, qualification for the Uefa Cup was greeted with near-euphoria at a packed Highbury.

How times have changed.

This season, entry into Europe's second cup - which will be rebranded the Europa Cup next term, in a desperate bid to breath new life into an ailing competition - will be seen as downright disaster.

But Champions League football, so long considered a foregone conclusion by Arsenal fans, is now anything but.

Fifth in the table, but unbeaten in 11 Barclays Premier League matches stretching back to February and with a raft of players to return from the treatment table, the Gunners should be primed for an assault on the title, let along a top four finish.

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A 14th league championship, though, is certainly out of reach, say those in the know.

"No, for me the league has well and truly gone," former Arsenal manager George Graham admitted to Ham&High Sport this week.

"Arsenal are out of the race for the title. That has been the case for a while, I think.

"I look at the squad and the strength in depth isn't there for me," adds Graham, who led the club to titles in 1989 and 1991 as manager, as well as playing in the legendary 1971 Double-winning side.

"Manchester United are in magnificent form while Liverpool are, somehow, just behind them, even though they are struggling. It's between those two at the moment."

But Graham says that does not mean it's all doom and gloom at the Emirates.

With home games against Sunderland and Fulham, and a trip to West Bromwich Albion, making up their next three league games, nine points is more than a distinct possibility as they look to overtake struggling Chelsea and this season's surprise success, Aston Villa.

"The squad is still well capable of a top four finish. They have to get a winning run together. An 11 match unbeaten run is a good basis for that, but seven of those have been drawn," says Graham "It is amazing how quickly things can turn around. A few wins and they are back where they need to be.

"I hope they do it - it will be sad if they don't. But I do think, ultimately, come May they will make it into the top four."

He also believes new-boy Andrei Arshavin can help to make a difference, although he wasn't impressed with the prolonged transfer saga with Zenit St Petersburg.

"It was a long drawn-out affair and, I have to say, very un-Arsenal," says Graham, 65 this year. "It was not in the Arsenal style. Normally the club gets these things sorted with the minimum of fuss, and with a bit of style too.

"I have not seen too much of him but I would say to the fans he is not a prolific goalscorer, so don't expect him to score lots of goals.

"He plays in a more withdrawn, Bergkamp-like role. I have seen a few clips of him and he looks a very good player who can set up others.

"He can add a new dimension, but he is the first of several new players needed long-term. I still maintain Arsene Wenger needs to maybe buy three more top-quality players to mount a proper, sustained, challenge for the title.

"When the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott return, they will be much stronger and not far off."

But with each passing week of dropped points and missed opportunities, even some of the players are struggling to keep a lid on their frustration.

Robin van Persie, the outstanding Gunner since the turn of the year and leading scorer with 13 goals, accepts things are "not really working".

"In the last three games we have had three draws and that is just not good enough," declared the Arsenal striker.

"It is six points missing - if we had those six points, but this is if, if, if. It is not really working. What can I say?"

But he added: "We are still creating the chances. Even with ten men against Spurs we had a few chances. I am not really worried because we are still creating.

"Sometimes it is me to blame or another player to blame. Sometimes we are unlucky. Everybody can judge that for themselves.

"We are working hard, but we know we are not there yet. We are not scoring enough goals, we are not playing well enough - but everyone stays positive and we are trying to help each other.

"The basics are there, its just up to us to finish it off now."

Although Emmanuel Adebayor is out for three weeks with a hamstring strain picked up at White Hart Lane last Sunday, Arsenal's attacking options should look far stronger come the next league game, when Sunderland visit the Emirates on Saturday week.

Striker Eduardo - on the bench at Tottenham after 12 months out with a fractured left fibula and dislocated ankle - is now fully fit while Arshavin should also be close to making his Arsenal bow.

In addition, England winger Theo Walcott is within touching distance of a return following three months out with a dislocated shoulder.

"Eduardo has been working really hard and everyone is just really happy that he is back. Hopefully he can play, the sooner the better," added van Persie.

"Arshavin has looked good in training - they both have - so there is more to come. I really believe in their qualities.