Arsenal still have plenty to play for this season

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With the business end of the 2011-12 campaign fast approaching, Saturday's FA Cup fifth round exit at the hands of Sunderland has effectively condemned Arsenal to yet another season without a trophy. Haven't we been here before?

Let’s rewind 12 months, and Arsene Wenger's young Gunners were on the verge of their first piece of silverware for nearly six years before a shock Carling Cup final defeat at the hands of Birmingham City last February.

It proved to be a defining moment in the club's season, which started a snowball effect as Arsenal's campaign capitulated in a matter of weeks, with exits from the Champions League and FA Cup adding to the growing unrest around north London.

Wenger's charges also lost pace in the Premier League title race, and by the middle of March their hopes and aspirations for what was supposed to be a successful year had been left utterly deflated - raw emotion that is at risk of resurfacing after an equally calamitous week of results.

Arsenal lost their Champions League last 16 first leg clash to AC Milan 4-0 at the San Siro on Wednesday, and then suffered a 2-0 defeat at the Stadium of Light - ending the club's only realistic hopes of a trophy return this year.

But, those who suggest that Arsenal's season is over are narrow-minded according to Wenger - the Frenchman insisting it would be a 'disaster' for the club to lose their status in Europe's elite competition - so there is still plenty for the Gunners to play for.

"Our main target now is to focus on the championship," Wenger reflected after the Sunderland defeat. "People are always asking the same question, but the first trophy is to finish in the top four. That is vital for us. Let's win our next home game and we will be fine.

"A week ago, we won at Sunderland in the championship and that is our main target. Then we lost at AC Milan and then again here [at Sunderland]. That's basically down to the fact that we had to give a lot on Wednesday night and then we had to travel again. That is difficult for any team in the world.

"We put a lot of spirit into this game against Sunderland and if we keep that spirit and recover a bit physically, then we can win that next game."

That next game happens to be the small matter of a date with local rivals Tottenham Hotspur - arguably the club's biggest north London derby in all of Wenger's 16-year reign at Arsenal.

The frugal Frenchman is under contract at the Emirates Stadium until 2014, but is starting to feel the pressure and the weight of expectation, as his, and Arsenal’s trophy drought looks set to continue.

A slow start to the current season - their worst since Wenger's arrival in 1996 - was partly down to a series of injuries that ravaged Arsenal’s defensive line. But after an extended run of good form following the side’s 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United at the end of August, a number of knocks now threatens to hamper their progress again - this time at the most crucial stage of the season.

The Gunners boss has never been a man to make excuses, and remains determined to iron out recent blemishes both to his and Arsenal’s reputation, as he bids to restore pride following the club’s latest setbacks.

"We have what it takes at the club when everybody is available because we had many missing and big, big players, too," Wenger added. "We are in mid-February and Wilshere has played zero games, Diaby has played zero games and [Per] Mertesacker is out for the rest of the season. Santos is out for three months.

"That would be difficult for any club in the world to deal with. It's hard enough to lose one or two ­players and we have lost too many. But at the moment I believe we are not making plans for next season. We are making plans for the next game."

Whilst recent events are unlikely to make the kindest of reading, Arsenal are still in that all-important fourth spot in the Premier League, albeit only on goal difference.

But as the race for that final Champions League place hots up, for Wenger and his players, finishing there will be as important as winning any trophy this year.

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