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Column: Arsenal just another middling English club

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Its long and illustrious history says Arsenal is a great club. Its soon-to-be eighth consecutive season without a trophy, however, says the 13-time champion of England is becoming a middling one.

If insanity is repeating the same mistakes but expecting different results each time, then Arsenal now exhibits all the symptoms. It is teetering on the brink of elimination from the Champions League because it has become a club that habitually sells off its best players, doesn't replace them with like-for-like quality and because its venerated coach, Arsene Wenger, increasingly looks unable or unwilling to deliver the electro-shock treatment that is needed. He continues to see promise in his team that, except to his eyes, no longer looks worthy of such confidence.

When Arsenal lost the 2006 Champions League final to Barcelona, with bolts of lightning and pounding rain swelling the sense of drama in the Stade de France stadium in Paris, only the bold or foolish would have predicted that from there it would all be downhill for Wenger and Arsenal. Now only the bold or foolish would stick their hand in the fire and declare that Wenger will one day lead the London club to such heights again. Not with this squad and these players so thoroughly out-classed by Bayern Munich in front of their own fans on Tuesday night.

There are those who argue that what Arsenal most needs is another Patrick Vieira, a match-changing leader like the France midfielder who joined Arsenal with Wenger in 1996 and whose final thunderclap as a Gunner was scoring the FA Cup-winning penalty in 2005. That was Wenger's most recent trophy. Also his last? How long ago that seems.

But in Jack Wilshere, Wenger already has a thrilling and influential midfielder. Although far smaller than Vieira and not physically intimidating like Arsenal's former captain, Wilshere has his intensity and allergy to losing, plus the creative footballing skills that could help bring trophies to the Emirates Stadium. But the 21-year-old, the embodiment of Arsenal's future hopes, cannot succeed alone. Arsenal's 3-1 loss to Bayern in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 match-up, with only Wilshere distinguishing himself with his zeal for the Gunners, again proved that.

When Arsenal last played Bayern in the Champions League, winning 1-0 at its old Highbury Stadium in 2005, Vieira could hardly have been better surrounded. Ahead of him, he had Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg to thread passes to. Jens Lehmann was watching his back in goal. Robert Pires, Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas came on as substitutes. Henry's goal that night wasn't enough to cancel out Bayern's lead from the first leg in Munich, which also ended 3-1 for the German side. But, even today, mere mention of those fabulous footballers makes Arsenal fans nostalgic. How many of Arsenal's current players will they say that about in years to come?

When Wilshere looked up field Tuesday at the Emirates, he could make out Theo Walcott playing in a striking role, not his best position, which is on the wing. Walcott is fast. He believes he can lead Arsenal's attack. But Walcott is no Henry and, from the evidence so far, he never will be. Neither will Olivier Giroud, the more orthodox striker Wenger brought on in the second half against Bayern but who is proving to be no substitute for Van Persie, the goal-scorer who quit Arsenal last August for Manchester United. Van Persie has since rubbed salt in that wound by declaring how he feels ''like I'm surrounded by champions'' at United, with teammates who ''know how to win.''

People used to say that about Arsenal, too, back in Vieira's day. Vieira had had the comfort of Ashley Cole and his murderous pace on his left flank against Bayern in 2005. Wilshere had the discomfort of Thomas Vermaelen, also playing out of position and looking as ill-suited at left-back as a fish at a garden party. In the center of what was supposed to be the Arsenal defense, Per Mertesacker also isn't the same presence he is for his German national team, spraying wayward passes and looking like a liability against Bayern.

As the Munich club cruised to its first ever European win in London, without ever needing to hit top gear, one simply wanted to ask Wenger where it all went wrong.

What happened to the manager who built the ''Invincibles,'' the team unbeaten in the English league in 2003-2004, playing 49 matches and losing none?

What happened to the coach with such an eye for great talent? In Henry, Van Persie and Fabregas, to name just those three, Wenger gave the English Premier League three of its most remarkable and memorable players. So how has Arsenal's vision become so clouded that it more recently hired Marouane Chamakh, Andre Santos, Park Ju-Young and other disappointments?

How did the innovator who shook up English football with his new-fangled coaching methods and nimble thinking in the 1990s get outsmarted and outmoded by the managerial brilliance of serial-winner Jose Mourinho, the evergreen Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola, who will take over at Bayern - God help the rest of Europe - from July?

And who was that irascible character who bit off journalists' heads this week? What happened to charming Wenger, the professor of football with the remarkably soft-skinned handshake?

Losses this season to Bradford in the League Cup quarterfinals and Blackburn in the FA Cup fifth round were embarrassing because Arsenal should, on paper at least, beat such lower league opponents every time. But unexpected one-off defeats are among the vagaries of cup football and can happen to any team.

More damning for Arsenal is that it has fallen so far behind not only the Bayerns of Europe, but behind England's best teams, too. With Manchester United now 21 points ahead of the Gunners in the English league, their match at the Emirates on April 28 isn't the must-watch fixture it used to be when Vieira and Roy Keane were at each other like hammer and tongs.

On March 13, Bayern will finish off the job it started in London and put the Gunners out of the Champions League. Wenger and Arsenal will go back to what they now do best: licking their wounds.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester



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