Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

James Lawton: Arsenal must feel a nagging sense of futility despite place in Champions League

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19:  Manager Arsene Wenger of Arsenal celebrates at the final whistle during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Manager Arsene Wenger of Arsenal celebrates at the final whistle during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19:  Newcastle manager Alan Pardew reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Newcastle manager Alan Pardew reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19:  Mathieu Debuchy of Newcastle in action against Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Mathieu Debuchy of Newcastle in action against Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St James' Park on May 19, 2013 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The margin was so fine, so gnawing at his peace of mind, that Arsène Wenger now knows how it is to step down from the dock freed from the heaviest of charges.

 

One of them, though, has to remain on the indictment sheet and it was never going to be removed by Arsenal's survival in the late scramble for Europe. It alleges that for some time now he has been presiding over a team geared to ensuring a profit – and another £30m was accrued yesterday – rather than making a serious challenge for the peaks of the game.

What you had to believe Wenger achieved with the fourth qualifying place was one last chance to re-make a team that is now only a shadow of those created by his most brilliant work.

He arrived in Newcastle bristling with that routine pride he has attached to all the years of unbroken Champions League football but soon enough you had to wonder all over again about the value of the journey.

You had to reflect that but for one near miss in Paris seven years ago and a night of thrilling promise in San Siro, it has a significance reflected almost entirely on the annual balance sheet.

Arsenal may believe they have earned the right to permanent membership of club football's most lucrative competition but the big question could have hardly have been more pressing on Tyneside. When are they going to enter it as anything more than a sometimes decorative but ultimately disposable asset?

As Arsenal listened nervously for news from White Hart Lane, the answer remained as remote as it has been for most of the 15 years of straight qualification.

There was that night in the Stade de France when Thierry Henry was a millisecond slow to pull the trigger on what might just have been a dramatic final victory for 10-man Arsenal over the emerging dynasty team Barcelona.

There was also that last great gesture of Cesc Fabregas as the club's midfield master-elect when he tore to pieces the ageing reigning champions Milan on their own soil. Yet for the rest of it what can we really say but that for all the dreams and the prettiness of much of their football there has to be the most nagging sense of futility.

The idea that the current team has any greater chance of a serious impact was of course brutally exposed when Bayern Munich came visiting earlier in the season that ended so tautly yesterday and it was not hugely allayed when Laurent Koscielny conjured from nowhere a breakthrough goal early in the second half. Certainly it had the benefit of soothing some distinctly frayed nerves, and not least those of Wenger.

He was hardly sanguine, though, and nor could he be so on the evidence of all that had gone before.

Arsenal were supposed to confirm the strength of a revival that had seen just one defeat in 15 games but here, with their fate entirely in their own hands, was much less than the required authority. Indeed, Wenger might already have been speculating on his uses of a reported war chest of £70m.

It didn't help that some seriously talented, and rewarded, Newcastle players appeared to be intent on ransacking the place in search of some remnants of lost pride after Koscielny hooked in the opener after Lukas Podolski had helped on a free-kick.

Newcastle, having escaped relegation at the end of a season of dismaying regression, did have the professional obligation to dispel at least a little the worst of the memories of their recent stripping down by Liverpool in front of their own fans.

They pursued it with enough force to bring fresh concern to the face of the Arsenal manager. Distractedly, he patted the hard-working Podolski on the shoulder when he was replaced late on by Olivier Giroud.

Heaven knows, it has been a wearing campaign for the great football man who won his last trophy eight years ago.

It was around about that time that he said winning something like the FA Cup – Arsenal's last prize, of course – had been utterly devalued when it was compared to qualifying for the Champions League. Now his proprietorial view of Europe was surely blurring. For a football man of such distinction, it was plainly an excruciating experience because if you took away from this Arsenal the highest level of European football what would you really have?

You would have a club detached from their last formal – and financial – link with the idea that they are still a major force at home and abroad.

When the worst didn't happen, when Newcastle couldn't find a killing touch and when Theo Walcott's shot against the post proved less than a fatal failure to insure against the potentially devastating effect of Gareth Bale's last rocket of the season, Wenger's relief was, naturally, exquisite.

It should not, however, delay him one second from delving into that war chest.

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