Sunday May 15, 2004 will go down as one of the most significant dates in English football’s rich history.
That was, of course, the day Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 to become the first team to go an entire league season unbeaten since Preston North End in 1888-89.
When Arsene Wenger hoisted aloft his third Premier League title in seven seasons on that sunny Sunday at Highbury, nobody would have predicted that, 11 years later, the Frenchman would still be awaiting number four.
There have been near misses since.
Wenger often cites Arsenal’s failure to last the course in 2008 – when they were five points clear at the top in late February, but fell away as the psychological impact of Eduardo’s horrific leg break at Birmingham City took its toll – as a source of major frustration.
Arsenal won just one of their next seven games following the ordeal of St Andrew’s and ended the campaign third and four points adrift of champions Manchester United.
Close, but no cigar.
But 2015-16 can, finally, be the season Arsenal – and Wenger – return to the summit of English football.
The last three close-seasons have seen a change in transfer policy from the Frenchman.
No longer is he a ‘jam-tomorrow’ manager. No longer is he a manager who only deals in the long term.
Flush with funds after the club paid off the debt attached to the construction of the Emirates Stadium, Wenger has splashed the cash on proven, world-class talent.
First, he shattered Arsenal’s transfer record to sign Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid in 2013. Twelve months later, Alexis Sanchez arrived from Barcelona.
It is this year’s major new recruit who could prove to be Wenger’s masterstroke, though.
At around £10million, Petr Cech may not have commanded a fee anywhere near those of Ozil and Sanchez, but the ex-Chelsea man provides Wenger with a luxury he has not enjoyed since the heady days of ‘The Invincibles’ – a genuinely top-drawer goalkeeper.
All of Cech’s experience and leadership was on display last Sunday, as he kept a clean sheet against his former club to help Arsenal to a 1-0 Community Shield win at Wembley.
Cech oozes calm. He oozes control. He oozes class.
Since Arsenal were last crowned champions, he has collected four Premier League winner’s medals, the UEFA Champions League, the Europa League, four FA Cups and three League Cups.
Cech also oozes medals. In short, he’s a winner.
Ozil is a World Cup winner, as is Per Mertesacker.
Sanchez is a winner. Fresh from a superb debut season with Arsenal, he inspired Chile to Copa America glory over the summer.
In Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott – none of whom are over the age of 26 – Wenger has some of British football’s best home-grown talents at his disposal.
Following Cech’s arrival, Arsenal’s squad looks complete. The perfect blend of talent, experience and youth.
Reigning champions Chelsea have not significantly strengthened their squad during the close-season. Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool are all in varying states of flux.
Following Cech’s arrival, Arsenal look like title-winners in the making.
Eleven years without the title must feel like a lifetime to Wenger. Don’t be surprised if May 2016 marks the end of the drought.
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