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Lack of fire marks Arsenal's sad decline towards mediocrity

Arsene Wenger called it "very intense," but it was not like the old days, when the tempers blew and the pizza flew. When Arsenal and Manchester United were English football's superpowers, water cannons were at the ready for these fixtures. For the teams, that is, not the fans.

Clashes between Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson used to be tribal, personal, decisive, magnetic. Now, there is a poignant feel to these meetings between the Premier League's two old stagers. Ferguson has won the struggle.

Wenger is left to chase a top-four finish and a Champions League qualifying place with a side who become less impressive, less convincing, by the year. The Arsenal manager accepts the subservient role with grace. The first clue was the guard of honour for United, English champions for a 20th time.

Some fans turned their backs. Others booed. The Arsenal players clapped out of duty.

In that ancient ceremony it was hard to summon images of the days when Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were a match for United's best and made every game an ordeal for Ferguson's men. Those games were molten.

This time the Arsenal reception committee included Per Mertesacker, whose last act when his team were chasing a winner was to boot the ball up in their air like a non-league centre-back; and Bacary Sagna, who compounded a bad pass by chasing Robin van Persie and hacking him down to concede a penalty.

However much Arsenal exert themselves in pursuit of a 16th visit to the Champions League under Wenger, there is not the same penetration, wit or conviction in the final third of the pitch, where Van Persie once roamed.

Ferguson's 13 Premier League titles eclipses the three won by Wenger in an eight-year burst that ended with the Invincibles of 2003-2004.

Since that stellar season for the Gunners, Ferguson and United have ploughed on and on, regaining the crown from Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and then the newly empowered Manchester City.

In that time, Arsenal have embarked on an eight-year run without a trophy. Qualifying for the Champions League has become their raison d'etre:

Wenger's defence against the accusation of regression. Not for the first time this spring, their form picked up when the pressure was off, on the trophy-hunting front, at any rate. They are unbeaten in the league in seven matches since the 2-1 defeat at Spurs on March 3, which prompted a defensive rethink. Even Wenger accepted that day that his team could not go on defending in such a louche manner.

For a time in January it seemed they would do well to make next term's Europa League, never mind the continent's elite competition, as the drop in quality became ever more apparent to the Highbury and Islington crowd, who flirted with mutiny, then settled into a kind of grumpy watching brief after Swansea. Reading, West Brom and Norwich were all beaten on the spin.

But there is still hard work to do in the vaunted race for third and fourth, against Spurs and Chelsea, who meet on May 8. The calendar has been kind to Wenger's side, offering a trip next to Queens Park Rangers (relegated), followed by a home game against Wigan and a concluding visit to Newcastle, who conceded six at home to Liverpool on Saturday.

Ferguson has mastered an art that now eludes his old rival: that of constant rebuilding that allows only the briefest drop in standards.

While United constructed a new Champions League around Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, Arsenal were starting the big talent drain which led inexorably to Van Persie moving to Old Trafford last summer.

Wenger allowed that damaging trade because he knew he could not hold on to his star player. The same logic propelled Cesc Fabregas back to Barcelona.


Arsenal conducted the sale of 'RVP' with great maturity. Yet in this game we saw the true outcome of not winning things, of giving world-class talent reasons not to stay.

Van Persie's penalty, which he declined to celebrate, was a beauty. A clean, firm curling stroke that affirmed in one strike of the ball what Arsenal lost when they let him go.

Ferguson stopped training his guns on this part of north London long ago. He knows the big threats are elsewhere.

After another warm exchange with Wenger, whose passion for expressive football he shares, the United manager said: "We expected a tough game and we got a tough game. Arsenal are fighting to be in the Champions League. They put a lot into the game today. They worked their socks off, and credit to them."

True, there was no disputing Arsenal's resolve, but there was plenty lacking in the areas that always defined them. They have become a scuffling side where once they swept around the field. On television, Graeme Souness argued they need to sign one or two "real men". It was not clear whether he meant tough-guys or proven winners.

Either way Arsenal are 21 points behind United.

Wenger praised "the effort, the dynamic, the desire" of his side. He also said he was "convinced" Arsenal would be back in Europe's big time. But he applied a phrase to the fans' view of Van Persie that would work just as well for their feelings about this Arsenal team. The phrase was: "disappointed love." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent