Is Arsène Wenger finished at Arsenal?
Just less than a year ago, Arsenal left the Nou Camp with the best thing any side eliminated prematurely from the Champions League could wish for: an excuse.
The dismissal of Robin Van Persie was a glorious diversion from the fact that Arsenal had barely put together a meaningful attack, and were level with Barcelona thanks only to Sergio Busquets' own goal, when they went down to 10 men.
In San Siro on Wednesday night, it was a very different story. Arsène Wenger toyed with the idea of blaming the pitch, thought better of it and then went about as far as he ever does down the road of blaming his players without singling any out.
In the old press room at San Siro, it felt like we had been here before with Arsenal. In fact, that was little more than five months ago when Wenger admitted that he felt "humiliated" by the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. This season the defeats have got worse and more numerous but the decline has been coming over a longer period than many at the club would care to admit.
It is telling that now it only needs one big Arsenal defeat, like Wednesday, for all the old questions to be raised again about Wenger's future and his long-term suitability to lead his club out of the slough of mediocrity that they find themselves in.
Put bluntly, were it not for Chelsea's dismal form this season, the pressure on Arsenal and Wenger would be intense. The inability of Andre Villas-Boas' team to keep pace with the top three, including Tottenham Hotspur, has allowed Arsenal to creep back into fourth place, on goals scored. It is a position that flatters them.
Stamford Bridge was the stage for Arsenal's one significant win of the season, a 5-3 victory. In the league they have lost to Liverpool (home), United (away and home), Tottenham (away) and Manchester City (away). Chelsea aside, Wenger's team have lost every time to any team with pretensions of challenging for the title.
After the win at Stamford Bridge on 29 October, their next best result in any competition was the 1-0 away win over Marseilles in the Champions League 10 days earlier. But ask what is Arsenal's next best league result after the win at Chelsea and it gets interesting. Based on the current state of the Premier League table, it is their 2-1 win at Carrow Road in November.
That the three best wins of the season are against an inconsistent Chelsea team, Marseilles and Norwich City does not say much about Arsenal. The failure of Chelsea and Liverpool to get their acts together in the league might have opened the door but once again, as soon as Arsenal faced some decent opposition on Wednesday night, they were shown up for what they are: an average team already 17 points off the Premier League leaders in February.
Over the last three seasons, Arsenal have done just about enough to disguise their failings but there is no hiding them now. Even Wenger did not bother to trot out the old promises about the future on Wednesday. At this rate the club will struggle to hang on to what they have.
You have to wonder what Van Persie made of Wednesday and whether he wants to risk being in the same position this time next season and, possibly, not even in the Champions League. Wenger's great faith in the principle of jam tomorrow has been overtaken by the fear that, with one more season left on Van Persie's contract, he may lose his best player for a second consecutive summer.
The Arsenal team that beat Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie this time last year included Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy and Emmanuel Eboué, all of whom have left. The latter two may have gone with Wenger's blessing but no one could argue that the team has grown any stronger in their absence.
In normal circumstances, if Van Persie, 28, was to leave, he would set his sights higher than a move to Milan but even that looks like an upgrade on Arsenal now. It brings Arsenal back to the original question: what is the long-term plan? If it is to continue to live within their means and sell their best players at a profit that is not as sensible as it may sound. Unfortunately for Wenger the big clubs and their managers are obliged to demonstrate progress to protect them from being asset-stripped of their best players.
The loss of Jack Wilshere for most of the season is debilitating and none of the top clubs have a similar long-term injury among their best players to compare, the closest being Darren Fletcher's absence at United. Wilshere, who was excellent against Barcelona last season was again missed on Wednesday when Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Song were overrun.
Arteta said after the match that if Arsenal scored two goals against Milan in the first half at the Emirates on 6 March that would mean it was "game on" but even he was struggling to believe it was possible. "I've never said never in football because you never know," he said. "But after [Wednesday] it's very, very difficult to get through and we all know that.
"We're really disappointed. We were expecting a very different game and everything became very difficult after the first goal. They were the better team, they deserved to win and we go to London with a really, really disappointing result.
"The pitch was awful. Obviously, we are not used to this pitch. They are because they play here every week but I don't think we need to use an excuse. We were counter-attacked too many times, playing away from home. We can't allow that to happen, and that was the key. They scored three goals in counter-attacks. It's very, very disappointing, difficult to take in and we have to change our minds because we have another tough game now on Saturday."
Tomorrow's game against Sunderland in the FA Cup fifth round could be another one of those occasions when Arsenal do just enough to get themselves out of the slump. If they win, it will be presented as a triumph of spirit by Wenger – who has cancelled his press conference today – and will be enough for them to scrape by.
Lose tomorrow and the gloom really sets in. After Sunderland comes the big one against Tottenham at home a week on Sunday. As much as Harry Redknapp will want to win, it is a game that Spurs can afford to lose much more than Arsenal can. Wenger has been close to the tipping point so many times but defeat to Spurs at the Emirates will demonstrate just how far his team are off the pace.
Wenger agreed that the scale of the defeat to Milan could have repercussions for his team. "There is a danger. A big disappointment like that has consequences on your belief. We have a lot of work to regroup and not a lot of time to prepare for Saturday's game."
The FA Cup tie, followed by Spurs' visit and then a trip to Anfield on 3 March all precede the return leg against Milan in 18 days' time. The mood could be desperate at Arsenal by that point. But even if they have managed, once again, to give catastrophe the slip, it hardly changes the bigger picture that Arsenal and Wenger are fading badly.
Luring Pep to Emirates looks like a pipe dream
Pep Guardiola may represent the perfect upgrade for many Arsenal supporters, but the chances of him giving up an opportunity to lead Barcelona into the Champions League again next season – with the possibility of another Wembley final – to take Arsenal into what could yet be a Europa League campaign look very small.
Guardiola's fondness for one-year contracts means he will be free to walk away in June but Barcelona director Toni Freixa said yesterday: "There is no concern surrounding his renewal, the board of directors has full confidence."
Guardiola could take advantage of the next two weeks, in which Barcelona play only two games, to put pen to paper – he signed his last deal at the same stage of the last campaign. Stranger than walking away from Leo Messi and Co would be a switch to Arsenal, after Guaudiola spent spent all last summer urging Cesc Fabregas to move the other way.