Champions League absence may help Arsenal
By Christian Radnedge
LONDON (Reuters) - Despite winning a third FA Cup in four years last season, there remains an air of unease around Arsenal heading into the new Premier League campaign.
Even their usual dominance in north London has been turned on its head, with rivals Tottenham finishing above them last season for the first time in 22 years.
Arsenal fans were split on whether Arsene Wenger deserved a new two-year contract with the club in May, with the FA Cup final triumph over Chelsea the clincher.
But though many fans will lament the absence of Champions League football this season for the first time in two decades, recent history indicates it may be the break they need to mount their most serious title challenge since they last lifted the trophy in 2004.
The previous two English champions, Leicester and Chelsea, were unburdened by the pressure of European football.
Arsenal will be competing in the UEFA Europa League but will surely be tempted to give their younger players that stage to prove their worth.
In China last week, chief executive Ivan Gazidis spoke about how Arsenal were committed to letting their youngsters flourish.
“At Arsenal we’re very much driven by our values, like giving young people a chance,” he said.
Rest and recuperation for first team regulars will be important too, especially given Arsenal's frequent injury issues, particularly hamstring strains.
Arsenal will have five of their rivals slugging it out on the continent for the top prize in European football thanks to Manchester United’s qualification via their Europa League win.
Perhaps, helped by canny acquisitions such as French forward Alexandre Lacazette and Bosnian left-back Sead Kolasinac, Arsenal can steal a march on their rivals.
Wenger proved last season, particularly in the 2-1 victory over Antonio Conte’s side in the FA Cup final in May, that he is still a master tactician. Knowledge such as his does not simply evaporate and if he is heading into his final years at the club, he is not the type to leave meekly.
However, whether or not Arsenal will be in the title reckoning come next May could depend on what happens in the next few weeks.
Despite repeated assurances from Wenger that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez will be staying, the duo have still not signed new contracts.
Their current deals expire next year, which Wenger called an ideal situation.
Sanchez has been linked with a move to Manchester City and would be the bigger miss in a potential title challenge.
The Chilean scored 24 goals in the league last season, and provided 11 assists. He also attempted the most shots in the whole team, with 129. The next best was Theo Walcott with 62.
Were Sanchez to leave, it would undoubtedly be for a hefty sum which could help secure the services Monaco’s young attacker Thomas Lemar who has been linked with a move to the Emirates.
One season out of the Champions League may be too much for 28-year-old Sanchez. However, the rest of the squad, with their average age of 26, may find it is the ideal time to upset the odds.
(Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)