Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez looks dejected during their Champions League round of 16 match against Bayern Munich in London on Tuesday. Photo: CFP
Arsenal host Lincoln City in the FA Cup sixth round on Saturday and - based on over a century of uninterrupted top-flight football, being joint record 12-time winners of the FA Cup and the 88 places that separate these sides - they are heavy favorites. But neither the formbook nor the history books have any place in knockout football and what happened midweek will inspire the Imps.
Barcelona proved that nothing is impossible in football while Arsenal, for all their many advantages, proved that they are beatable. For them there was no Champions League miracle. They lost 5-1 to Bayern Munich at the Emirates on Tuesday to crash out 10-2 on aggregate, which followed hot on the heels of last weekend's 3-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield. The club may not quite be in full-fledged crisis, but the increasing impatience in the stands appears to have spread to the dressing room. Alexis Sanchez, the team's undoubted star player, is at the center of this, with the Chilean reported to have grown frustrated with his underperforming teammates. He was dropped to the bench for the game at Anfield, a move that Arsene Wenger claimed was tactical, and has been linked with a move away from the club in the summer.
Whether Wenger will still be there then is the even bigger issue at Arsenal. The long vocal minority calling for his head have increased in number this season, and the support is genuinely divided over when he should call time on his two decades in charge. A loss to Lincoln City would swing the balance in favor of the relationship ending sooner rather than later. It is a match that they are expected to win in a competition they have won twice in the last three seasons and their last chance of silverware this season. This is a must-win game for Wenger and Arsenal, one that could be season - if not era - defining depending on the result.
The pressure is on for the hosts but the Imps travel to the Emirates with nothing to lose. As a non-league side they are not meant to be at this stage - it is the first time this has happened in 103 years - but they have earned their right to be there. Six points clear at the top of the National League (fifth tier) and on track for their real goal this season - promotion to the Football League - Lincoln come into the game on the back of a 10-game unbeaten run, the most recent of which was a 4-0 win away at Braintree Town while Arsenal were losing to Bayern. That was played in front of a crowd of 1,182, and while a full house of 60,000 at the Emirates will be a very different experience, confidence will rightly be sky high for the visitors.
Saturday might be a day out for the almost 9,000 traveling from Lincolnshire, but that's not how the players are treating it. Imps manager Danny Cowley stated as much after the Braintree game, "We aren't going there for a day out - if you want a day out you go to a zoo or a theme park." He will be without Lee Angol - who marked his Imps debut with a hat trick in midweek - because the on-loan striker played for parent club Peterborough against Chelsea in the third round, but he can call on the players who have brought Lincoln this far.
Those include Sean Raggett, the big central defender whose 89th-minute winner against Premier side League Burnley earned Lincoln City their trip to the Emirates and him a place in Gazzetta Della Sport's European team of the week. Raggett, an Arsenal fan who has never seen the Gunners in the flesh, will run out at the Emirates as one of his side's more household names. The other player who played his way into the public consciousness last round was Matt Rhead. The burly center forward made headlines for his running battle with Joey Barton in the last round and he will present an unfamiliar test for Arsenal's backline.
There are others who might write themselves into cup folklore on Saturday. England C skipper Alex Woodyard has become a fan favorite since joining last summer, as has midfielder Nathan Arnold (especially as he left hated rivals Grimsby Town to drop down a league to join Lincoln), while captain Luke Waterfall has been the other standout performer. Meanwhile, striker Jonny Margetts has returned to the club on loan from Scunthorpe United, where he moved earlier in the season, and has been cleared to play in the FA Cup.
Brothers in arms
It is in the dugout that the biggest reputations may be forged, where manager Danny Cowley will be sat next to his brother and assistant manager Nicky as the pair look to execute the biggest shock in cup history. The Cowleys only joined Lincoln from Braintree last summer and this is their first full-time coaching role, but the former PE teachers will have done their homework on Arsenal. They cite detail-obsessed England rugby coach - and another former PE teacher - Sir Clive Woodward as their idol and have borrowed from other sports and used technology to gain any advantage, such as the app that players use to analyze performance. Going against Wenger is their biggest test yet but they won't want their journey to end at the Emirates when Wembley beckons.
Lincoln have long made history for the wrong reasons. The club hold the record for the most times relegated to non-league football with five, the most recent of which was 2011, but they are on the way back up. Saturday is a chance to make history for the right reasons and while they might be looking to the future, they might want to take one lesson from the past. The last time these clubs met 102 years ago, Lincoln won 1-0. They'll take a repeat of that.