Arsenal face a season-defining week beginning Saturday, with critical games against Liverpool, Udinese and Manchester United coming back to back to back.
The gauntlet couldn't come at a worse time for the Gunners, who are depleted by injury and suspension, and demoralized by high-profile transfers away from the club.
Saturday, Arsenal will be without Gervinho and Alex Song (suspended), Johann Djourou, Armand Traore, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Kieran Gibbs (injured) and will be missing both Samri Nasri and the just-departed Cesc Fabregas. In their place? Nineteen-year old Carl Jenkinson, set to make his Premier League debut in one of the biggest games of the season.
They take a 1-0 lead into the second leg match, but were hardly convincing at home. Finally, they will head north to Old Trafford for a rivalry match with the defending champs.
In any other year, fans might be more charitable to the under-fire manager Arsene Wenger. But after six long seasons without silverware and last season's historic collapse Wenger's last stand may be now.
Realistically, he must win at least two of these games and he cannot crash out of Europe. If he should fail in Udine, the once unthinkable could become fact: Wenger becoming the first managerial casualty of the new Premier League season.
How did it come to this? The seeds were sown last season when Wenger's refusal to buy a top-class goalkeeper directly led to the club bowing out of the Premier League title race and blowing the Carling Cup. A malaise settled over the club, with some of the established stars starting to wonder if this organization was truly committed to winning titles -- or just in qualifying for the Champions League each season.
Fans who had backed 'The Professor' season after season began grumbling as the failures piled up. By the close of play last May, there were calls for the team to find a new direction.
The last straw may have been the sale of Fabregas to boyhood club Bareclona, and the impending sale of last year's MVP Nasri to Manchester City. The former was painful but understandable; the latter is down to the fact that Nasri sees no chance of winning titles with the club -- and he has a point.
Perhaps even worse, Arsenal have been unable to sign a number of key targets -- particularly Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka -- instead turning once more to unproven youth players. It's a routine even the loyalists are tiring of, and the fans are no longer shy about venting their disgust.
The way the sales were handled has also raised eyebrows: instead of cutting deals that would have allowed the team to buy new talent in the off-season and integrate the new men into training, Arsenal are set to lose their two biggest talents in the midst of a frantic season opening.
Wenger has endured steady setbacks off the pitch as well, beginning with the ousting of confidante David Dein in 2007 after conflicts with the board of directors. The manager is also said to be dismayed by the takeover of the club by American magnate Stan Kroenke, who is involved in something of a Mexican standoff with Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov that has paralyzed the board. Finally, Wenger has also taken the fans' criticism deeply personally.
Reports suggest that he is seeking an escape hatch of his own. Newly-wealthy Paris Saint-Germain, owned by the Qatar Investment Authority, is preparing to offer Wenger a role with the club in the hopes of bringing home France's best known and best-loved manager. That would have sounded like a long shot even six months ago. Now, with PSG buying top talent and making a determined attempt to become a European power again it's certainly within the realm of the possible.
But Wenger is also a victim of his own hubris. His unwillingness to shore up his defense and his reliance on young players in what is a man's game makes Arsenal an exciting team to watch -- but not a winning one.
In public, Wenger seems increasingly brittle, railing against the "negativity" surrounding his club and loudly insisting that he has the players he needs to win. Unfortunately, on the pitch and off, his claims have been revealed as hollow. Players don't want to sign for this club, the players he has don't wish to stay, and on the pitch the same old weaknesses are there for all to see.
Arsenal and Wenger have one dramatic week to either salvage or lose their season. If they stumble, expect the exodus of talent to continue, and the rebuilding to begin -- under a different manager.