Whither Wenger?

The Gunners have been left with the Premier League alone. In quick succession they were removed from three other competitions, humiliation surely being reached at Nou Camp in the Champions League when Barcelona simply extinguished them.

Mathematically at least, Arsenal still have a valid chance of winning the Premier League. Manchester United remain the favourites and they recently beat the Gunners 2-0 at Old Trafford, but, by and large, they have been winning narrowly and somewhat ingloriously in a Premiership which, to be critically and cruelly frank, has been largely undistinguished, even at the top. Indeed, the same might well be said, Barcelona apart, about Europe's senior tournament, of all, the European so called Champions League in which actually champions, as we know, are, somewhat at a premium. United, Chelsea and Spurs all came through the quarterfinals, United being drawn against Chelsea themselves. Yet Chelsea, too, have hardly scintillated and cannot use in Europe the new star of their show, the versatile Brazilian, David Luiz.

As for the Gunners, they have been left with the Premier League alone. In quick succession they were removed from three other competitions, humiliation surely being reached at Nou Camp in the Champions League when Barcelona simply extinguished them, in a match where the Gunners could not contrive a single strike on goal. Bar, of course, the own goal, which did at least enable them to score once, overwhelmed as they were.

Afterwards Arsene Wenger, who has been in largely impressive charge of the team since 1996, was ready with a dubious excuse. He heaped blame on the admittedly erratic Swiss referee, Massimo Busacca, for controversially expelling Robin van Persie, guilty merely of carrying on playing and shooting — wide, of course — when the whistle had gone for offside. This got him his second yellow card and his removal. But, by that time no objective observer would have given the negative Gunners a hope of survival. And Wenger was hardly an objective witness.

He was angered after the game by the accusations of two Barcelona players Xavi and Busquets, that Arsenal had played in a surprisingly unadventurous manner. But how could that be denied? Nor, to be frank, was it the first time that the Gunners, under Wenger, had approached a major game in such a surprising manner? Though on that occasion, the FA Cup final in Cardiff in 2005, they somehow got away with it. This was a rare tactical aberration by Wenger, who mysteriously decided to play Dennis Bergkamp on his own up front, though the hugely talented Dutchman was by then in the twilight of his career and devoid of any real pace. But the Gunners dourly ground out a goalless draw and after extra time, eventually prevailed on penalties.

There would be no such escape at Nou Camp, where, inexplicably and in the event disastrously, Wenger decided to risk the plainly unfit Cesc Fabregas. You can see the temptation. Fabregas, of course, was whisked away from Bercelona by Arsenal as a teenager and was plainly desirous of playing against his original club. But, almost predictably, it ended in tears, with Fabregas, guilty of a disastrously careless back-heel, presenting his old club with a vital goal. An error he would surely never have made, if fully fit.

This was far and away Wenger's worst mistake but there were others. It seemed strange that he should exclude his able Moroccan centre-forward Marousne Chamakh and yet deploy the technically far less accomplished Dane Nicklass Bendtner, who clumsily threw away the best chance, if you discount the own goal, which the Gunners had during the match. A few days later, at Old Trafford, Chamakh played and more than once forced the veteran Manchester United goalkeeper Van der Sar to make accomplished saves. And to leave the clever little Russian Winger Andrei Arshavin out of the starting line-up, after his lively display at The Emirates against Sunderland, which with better officiating from referee and linesman, would surely have brought two goals, made similarly little sense.

A curiosity, even an irony, of the game at Nou Camp, and the match at Old Trafford which would follow, was the glittering return between the goal posts of Manual Alumnia. Out of favour for months, after a number of shaky displays he was back up in Barcelona to the young Polish keeper, Wojciech Szczesny, who went off injured early in the game after making a save. The veteran Alumnia won his place with authority and agility, and subsequently at Old Trafford, he was just as effective and resourceful.

Desperate to find backup, Wenger brought the 41-year-old German international Jens Lehmann out of retirement; a double risk, first, since as Wenger admitted, Lehmann could be ring rusty after so long out of action, and secondly, because his bitter resentment of Almunia, who had previously displaced him in goal, had never been assuaged. And in Arsenal's next game, at West Bromwich Albion, Lehmann might still have delighted in schadenfreude, the German word which means satisfaction in the misfortunes of others. For it was there, at The Hawthorns, that Almunia, for no cogent reason, came rushing far out of his goal and the penalty box, in pursuing a ball which could comfortably have been cleared by his centre-back. As it transpired, both missed it, and the ball ended up in the empty goal.

Ever volatile, not to say arrogant, Lehmann, powerful, brave and athletic has always been something of a stormy petrel. His penalty shoot-out save at Cardiff in 2005 had arguably won the team the Cup final. But he got himself sent off in a European Cup final versus Barcelona, in Paris, and it is hard to forget a monumental error one saw him make in a European Cup game at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. Rushing impetuously and quite superfluously out of the penalty box to his right, he succeeded only in kicking the ball against the Chelsea striker, Eidur Gudjohnsen, who worked the rebound into the empty net.

It is surely arguable that Wenger should have signed a new goalkeeper in the close season, his pursuit of Fulham's Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer looking doomed from the start. And though it is hardly his fault that the best of his centre-backs, the Belgian international, Thomas Vermaelen, had been crippled all season, he might surely have gone into the market, even when the chance came, in January to find a better centre-back than those he had.