James Lawton: Wenger creates culture of whining not winning

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The Independent Online

Arsenal's apologists now have a natural debating alliance. They can line up with those who have always said the Champions' League is a money-grubbing device destined to make a travesty of the old competitive values of the European Cup.

Arsenal's apologists now have a natural debating alliance. They can line up with those who have always said the Champions' League is a money-grubbing device destined to make a travesty of the old competitive values of the European Cup.

But if it is true that the game in Turin this week which bound Arsène Wenger's team into their reputation for futility at the highest level of club football was played in bizarrely unreal circumstances, there is still no denying the scale of the club's failure. It can be spelled out in fairly brutal terms. The fact is that, if Arsenal were involved in a farce at the Stadio delle Alpi, it was one they created for themselves. In making it to the quarter-finals, Manchester United and Liverpool have announced again time-hardened stomachs for the European battleground. Arsenal have not.

Their away record in the Champions' League, already pitiful, reached a new low in their inability to see off Juventus reserves in the near empty stadium.

Some asked how they could carry the right mindset into a game in which neither heavy victory nor defeat would affect the issue if Bayer Leverkusen beat Deportivo La Coruña, but surely the answer was self-evident. Professionals of any kind are required to deal with a situation as it is rather than how they would like it.

Arsenal had a simple obligation in Italy. It was to win, and that requirement was heightened by the weakness of the team picked by the Juve coach, Marcello Lippi. If they couldn't win, they could draw, and if all else failed they could look seriously interested in the outcome. Thierry Henry apart, this was generally not the case.

At one point Deportivo, buoyed by the arrival of the Iferocious Diego Tristan, came back to within a goal of their German opponents. But had they gone another step, it would still have meant nothing to Arsenal. Wenger, inevitably, said that he was disappointed by events in Spain. It is his habit to switch the point of responsibility for any Arsenal shortfall of discipline or performance, but on this occasion certain realities could not be dodged.

Deportivo's selection was entirely a matter for them, just as it was Wenger's when he went into the FA Cup tie at Newcastle without Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp. Deportivo were through, having ripped Arsenal apart at Highbury, and what Arsenal made of it was their own self-inflicted business.

What we are left with is a growing sense that Arsenal, unlike their Premiership title rivals United and Liverpool, have an inherent flaw that continues to betray a capability for sublime football, at times quite the best being produced in the English game. It is an unrivalled capacity to make excuses for themselves.

A few weeks ago Wenger was dismissing the value of the League Cup, and suggesting that the FA Cup, too, was a triviality when measured against the importance of qualifying for the Champions' League. But what do Arsenal do when they gain entry to the only tournament which, according to them, really matters? Consistently they fall down. They have developed a culture in which success and failure can be redefined at the drop of a quote.

A little lost in the wider weight of failure in Turin was the fact that, if Arsenal had progressed to the quarter-finals, their most influential player, Patrick Vieira, would have been suspended. Not because he made some desperate miscalculation under fierce pressure. No, his yellow card came as the result of the crude and gratuitous scything down of Edgar Davids.

Vieira, who according to Wenger is conspired against in English football, made his own fate, and potentially Arsenal's. Later he was indignant when asked about where his future lay, and his interrogator was criticised by the television analysts, Andy Townsend and Barry Venison, for hitting a man when he was down. Vieira, who, apart from the moment he hacked at Davids, had one of his less committed games, implied that it was the media which had created such speculation. It was nothing, of course, to do with his flying social visit to Madrid recently or the noises of unrest being made on his behalf last summer.

Meanwhile, United and Liverpool await today's quarter-final draw reinforced by fresh evidence of their competitive steel. They may worry about the class and the swagger of, particularly, Real Madrid and Deportivo, but they do not have to look in the mirror when they are questioned about their resolve.

United have won three Premiership titles and the European Cup since Arsenal collected their last trophy. Liverpool won the League Cup, the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup last season. These are the facts which must prey on Arsenal as they contemplate the run-in for the Premiership. There is no question that Arsenal have been an adornment of domestic competition this season. Henry, Pires and Bergkamp have produced passages of dynamic beauty. As a team they have brilliance, but do they have a core of belief, an ability to engage the vital moments which in the end decide between the winners and the losers?

Wenger says that Arsenal will win next year. Yet, after Turin, it is hard to imagine a more fragile promise. It was a failure of passion, of defiance, one beyond any satisfactory excuse. But no doubt Arsenal will find one. They generally do. They are good on excuses. It is, they have to grasp, not usually a talent of natural-born winners.