Commentary

Can Arsenal win a title?

Updated: February 22, 2011, 12:42 AM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to ESPN.com

ArsenalShaun Botterill/Getty ImagesEven with a side featuring the Danish international Nicklas Bendtner, Arsenal could only muster a draw against Leyton Orient.

Even for an Arsenal fan supposedly immune to wildly oscillating emotions (see: the second-half meltdown at St. James' Park), the Mood Swing-O-Meter has been off the charts this past week. From storming back to beat "the best team in history" to tying a squad more than 50 places below them in the English league hierarchy. From outplaying Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to struggling against Whing, Chorley and McGleish. From visions (and delusions) of Quadruples to the cold reality check of an FA Cup replay against Leyton Orient.

I hate to be a killjoy, but on behalf of insufferable Arsenal supporters everywhere, can we now please have a moratorium on all of the talk of Arsenal winning four trophies until the Gunners have lifted at least one, even if it's just a Cup named after a weak lager?

I mean, there was barely time -- four days and 17 beers, to be exact -- to wallow in the euphoria of Wednesday's glorious, life-affirming, pulsating 2-1 takedown of Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League tête-à-tête. Then Arsenal reminded us why it is the most bipolar team on the planet, thudding back to reality with a laborious 1-1 draw against League One's 11th-best team in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

The physical distance between Arsenal and Orient may only be six miles, but in terms of talent, glamor and payroll, they might as well be from separate galaxies. The differences between the two clubs are legion, ranging from attendance (60,000 spectators at the Emirates to a mere 9,000 at Brisbane Road), to Arsenal possessing three players from the French national team -- Samir Nasri, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy -- versus Orient's goal-scoring hero Jonathan Tehoue, who last played for a third-division French club.

Even the boisterous and optimistic Orient fans paid homage to the yawning gap as they chanted throughout the match, "You've got Cesc Fabregas -- we've got pies and mash."

But Arsene Wenger graciously did his best to close the chasm between the teams by following his usual back-firing routine of running out his less visible players for domestic cup matches, making 10 changes (only Alex Song remained) from the starting lineup that so captivated the soccer world on Wednesday.

The Arsenal manager even went so far as to permit both the French defensive disaster, Sebastien Squillaci, to appear at the same time as Manuel "Aluminum" Almunia, the lost Spanish goalkeeper with the tin foil stopping power. Perhaps the ultimate display of cup hubris involved a senior debut for center back Ignasi Miquel, the latest preternatural teen to hail from Barcelona. The young Spaniard acquitted himself well until being undressed along with 21-year-old Kieran Gibbs for the tying goal.

[+] EnlargeCrawley
Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesThe magic of the FA Cup captured the imagination of Crawley Town fans when their team faced Manchester United this past weekend.

Still, with a side featuring the Danish international Nicklas Bendtner, the Moroccan international Marouane Chamakh, the Czech international Tomas Rosicky and Russian international Andrei Arshavin (who scored the dramatic winner against Barca), it wasn't as if Wenger had turned the ball over to a pub team. Orient's most skilled players were probably the bunch of youngsters on loan from Tottenham, which means that the Gunners' second string was unable to beat a Spurs farm club. Oh, how they must have been chortling at White Hart Lane, where the Arsenal Schadenfreude Index no doubt shot through the roof after the Barca game.

The real Spurs, meanwhile, had thrown down the London CL gauntlet on Tuesday with a gutsy, Bale-less 1-0 away win over Serie A leaders AC Milan, only to see their impressive result vaporize in an orgy of praise for Arsenal's heroic fight-back against the Catalan giants.

And the other capital team dreaming of CL glory, Chelsea, did wonders for its confidence going into this Tuesday's match against Copenhagen. In losing on PKs for the seventh time in its past eight efforts, the back-to-back FA Cup holders were eliminated by Everton after Leighton Baines' sensational free kick at the death of extra time had given the Toffees life.

(By the way, I hear Cashley Cole's penalty kick is still affecting weather patterns in northern Europe.)

Even Gunners keeper Wojciech Szczesny showed off his wit on Saturday, tweeting about Cole's orbiting miss: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's just Ashley throwing Chelsea out of the FA Cup."

And I'm sure there was no shortage of mirth at Old Trafford, either. United meets the winner of the Arsenal-Orient replay. The Red Devils' own reserve team's performance (Ferguson used only two starters from last week's win over Man City) against Crawley Town, a club two full divisions below Leyton Orient, was underwhelming -- Bebe is on track to eclipse Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi and Jose Kleberson as the worst single purchase in Sir Alex's career -- but at least the EPL leader held on to beat the nonleague minnows 1-0 to advance to the FA Cup quarterfinals.

Ironically, of all of the teams mentioned, only Spurs seem to be showing the depth traditionally associated with making deep runs on multiple fronts. Against AC Milan, not only were they missing the Italian destroyer Bale, but Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart were ailing, and Tom Huddlestone, Jermaine Jenas and Ledley King were sidelined. Harry Redknapp was even forced to dust off the so-oft-injured-we-thought-he-had-retired Jonathan Woodgate for the first time since Tony Blair left office. And still Spurs attacked relentlessly, dominating long stretches while displaying surprising steel in the back. Compare that with the almost pathetic antics of the Chelsea regulars, or the United and Arsenal reserves.

[+] EnlargeTim Howard
Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC/Getty ImagesEverton's Tim Howard made a crucial save against Chelsea's Nicolas Anelka in the penalty shootout of their FA Cup match Saturday in London.

All of a sudden, the twin thoughts of a Spurs CL final and a top-three EPL finish are nowhere near as absurd as making the same claim on behalf of the defanged Chelsea Lions.

But as poorly as the big clubs' second strings have performed, it should take nothing away from one of the sporting world's most intriguing and engaging tournaments, the FA Cup. It may not possess the fabled magic of yore when hoisting the Cup was almost equal in cachet to winning the league, but the fact that a tiny outfit like Leyton Orient can both play against, and ultimately draw with, any group of players wearing the Arsenal shirt lifts the spirits of every 11-year-old boy smacking his Jabulani against his parents' garage.

Similarly, if the Red Devils of Crawley Town can march into the Temple of Old Trafford and come within a crossbar splinter of drawing mighty United, then there isn't a butcher's boy alive who doesn't have moments of imagined glory playing on the village green in his Sunday league.

That's the beauty of the FA Cup, but unfortunately, the big clubs no longer buy into its romance. They have been forced by pragmatic concerns -- most notably the financial windfall of the Champions League -- to treat it as just another piece of bling that would be nice to have as long as it doesn't derail their larger ambitions. Which is why Wenger didn't just rotate his lineup against Orient, he Mick McCarthyed it, fielding essentially the kind of shadow team that resulted in a hefty fine for the Wolves manager when he did the same thing earlier this season in the league.

Wenger's rationale is that Arsenal is battling on four fronts -- the league, the CL, the FA Cup and next Sunday's Carling Cup final -- so he needs to keep his best players fresh for the more important competitions. Fair enough, but then why stock your bench with Fabregas, Nasri and Wilshire and not make a single substitution when the Orient game was there to be won? Instead, Wenger settled for a draw and added another match, the FA Cup replay, to a fixture list already more cluttered than the house on "Hoarders."

Orient will relish the short ride to the Emirates on March 2 -- just six days before the Gunners' pilgrimage to Camp Nou for their second leg against Barcelona.

After his team lost to Arsenal on Wednesday, Xavi assured the Barca faithful that "this wasn't a major slipup, it's a footballing accident, that's all."

Gunners fans will be hoping that Sunday's draw against Orient was just that -- a speed bump on the road to making history. Otherwise, The Quadruple will start looking increasingly like The Single.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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