Saturday 27 May 2017

Longevity in Europe brings its own curse

Whatever about tonight, a top-four failure could spell doom for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal

It is not inconceivable now that the expected exit against Barcelona will be the last time that Wenger is involved in this competition. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
It is not inconceivable now that the expected exit against Barcelona will be the last time that Wenger is involved in this competition. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Jason Burt

It could be 200 and out tonight. It could be Arsene Wenger's 200th - and final - match in the Champions League, and in its previous guise as the European Cup, over a managerial career that has first covered Monaco and, for the past two decades, Arsenal. It really could be over.

It is not inconceivable now that the expected exit against Barcelona will be the last time that Wenger is involved in this competition. The last time he stands on the touchline, imploring more, in pursuit of a trophy he has so desperately wanted to win but has got further and further away from as the years have passed.

The 2006 final, lost to Barcelona, stands as a lone bridgehead and that feels a very long time ago. There has been a semi-final, quarter-finals since, but it feels like a different age for Arsenal and for Wenger.

The Nou Camp is not a bad way to go out. Except not in the last 16 of the Champions League. Not again. Wenger, as he did not need reminding, has never won here.

"You say that I have played 200 games in the Champions League," Wenger said when asked about the achievement, highlighted by France Football on Monday with this 183rd match with Arsenal to add to 17 with Monaco. It leaves him just nine matches behind Alex Ferguson's total achieved with Aberdeen and Manchester United, the most for any manager. But it was also, evidently from his raised eyebrow reaction, something of which he was unaware. "We have won everywhere in Europe but not here yet."

That "yet" was left in the air as a mark of Wenger's stubborn belief. He also knows that it would be typical of Arsenal's DNA in recent years to actually win this fixture but still go out of the competition in glorious failure, cursing once more what could have been. Unless Arsenal overturn the daunting 2-0 deficit from the first leg it will be the sixth successive season that they have failed at the first hurdle of the grown-up stage of the Champions League.

Twice it will have happened against Barcelona, twice against Bayern Munich, once against AC Milan and, last year, perhaps most infuriatingly, against Wenger's former club, Monaco. But the fact is they have become serial half-failures. A team and a club who appear too cosy; who settle for half and hope for the best; a team who have a mental fragility for which Wenger must take responsibility.

There have been embarrassments, humiliations, near misses, misfortune and mess-ups for Wenger to contend with. He has one more year on his contract after this season and has no intention - as things stand - of quitting the club so he will hope there will be one more tilt next season. As long as Arsenal finish in the top four of the Premier League. He sounded far more positive in the press conference ahead of facing Barcelona than he has done in recent weeks. There was none of the pursed lip sourness, the chippiness and riling at questions that have punctuated his briefings with a mix of anger, frustration and affront.

But Wenger is also considering his own future. It is not the first time that has happened and he even revealed recently that had Arsenal not won the FA Cup in 2014, against Hull City, it would have been "difficult" to remain.

Admission

That admission was made with the hindsight that it was a decision that he did not have to make and while he undoubtedly still has the full support of the Arsenal board, he knows that the increasingly toxic atmosphere at the Emirates, and the focus of the anger on him, has become an inhibiting factor that has to be dealt with.

Wenger will typically hope that improved results will stem that mood of rebellion enabling him to remain, to see out his final year and to probably sign a new extended contract, but there is less certainty than ever before.

The momentum is working against Wenger with a soft underbelly being continually exposed at the club and by the players he has cosseted and protected. There needs to be a hard reaction from a team who headed the Premier League on January 2 and now trail Leicester City by 11 points, who are out of the FA Cup they had hoped to retain for a second time and who face another Champions League disappointment and a fight to finish in the top four. If Wenger does not secure a Champions League place for next season there appears little doubt he would go.

It was typical Wenger to claim that the Premier League title race was "more open than people think". It invited criticism, scorn, ridicule even, but it spoke of a man who has that dreamer's belief that things will change for the better because he feels his way remains the right way. And nothing more.

It is why he also spoke of "taking the game" to Barcelona which might induce a shiver of apprehension as to the response it could provoke. There is a genuine affection and sense of marvel - rather than approval - at Wenger's longevity wherever Arsenal go in Europe. Luis Enrique is Barcelona's 11th coach since Wenger was hired by David Dein back in 1996. Barca have won 17 trophies since that 2006 final, Arsenal two.

Going even further back, Wenger's European Cup odyssey began in September 1988, when he took Monaco to Iceland to face Valur. They lost 1-0 but progressed 2-1 on aggregate before eventually going out in the quarter-finals.

What Wenger would not give to reach the last eight again. But although since then he has not changed, the world has. He struggles to stem the tide lapping around him. (© Independent News Service)

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