James Lawton: Wenger's hard-luck story is to be fated never to see where the true fault rests

Such lack of impact when there is so much to play for seems to be rooted in the way of Arsenal's thinking and spirit and character
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The Independent Football

If anyone's hard-luck story deserves a sympathetic hearing it is surely the great football man Arsène Wenger's. But then you have to ask: how many times?

How many times to shadow-box around the unwelcome fact that there could just be the dreadful dawning of what we have here – less a gigantic conspiracy than a basic fault, not from without but within?

The question is unavoidable if you found it disturbingly easy to identify with Kenny Dalglish's brusque and, there is no other way of putting it, contemptuous dismissal of the Arsenal manager on the Emirates touchline.

What Dalglish seemed to be saying, in rather harsher terms, was that maybe it is time for Wenger to rail not against unkind fate, in this instance brought by added time, but the failings of his own team.

This is not easy, no doubt, when you suspect you have just seen still another chance of a significant trophy trailing off down the Holloway Road, but maybe the moment has indeed come to wonder if you indeed, after all the tutoring, have all the right players with the best of competitive character.

It is not an opportunistic sneer but more the confession of an admirer that there is only so much faith to be invested in a team which so regularly confounds the hope that they may have come of age, that their promise is founded on something more than Pollyanna yearnings, that buried down there in the precocious skill, the lovely rhythmic passing, the moments of inspiration that send the blood racing, there is a real team capable of seizing their moment rather than merely dancing around the reality of another failure.

The exchange with Dalglish was brutal. The Liverpool manager, who has known all of the highs and lows of football, including in the latter category the Hillsborough tragedy that at one point helped drive him from the game and whose anniversary was acknowledged before Sunday's kick-off, was understandably exhilarated by the latest evidence that he has indeed brought back to Anfield a sense of team and tradition and pride that had gone so profoundly missing for so long.

When the gesticulating Wenger first approached him, Dalglish's expression was quizzical; perhaps he even entertained an idea that there might be a flash of agreement that football could take the men in command to some extremely tough places.

Instead, he saw that Wenger, who has done so much for the game, was laden with the old reproaches. So he told him in far from elegant language that he should go away. In all the circumstances, it seemed like a legitimate response.

Later, Dalglish dismissed the episode as something that should not intrude on to the high ground of a stirring performance. Again, it was the reaction of a man tempered by a lifetime of the good and the bad of football.

How the watching new owner of Arsenal, Stan Kroenke, saw all of this made not the least intriguing of speculation.

He is a man of American sport, a place where the nuances of a goalless 90 minutes were buried at the birth of the old North American Soccer League, which ransacked the offside law and instituted an immediate, all-running, all-feinting shoot-out in the event of a draw. "A goalless tie," said one home-grown executive, "is about as thrilling as kissing your sister."

Kroenke, given the extent of his investment, may just have concluded that over the last few crucial weeks the Arsenal patrons have had quite enough of sibling pecking.

If so, it might just be the final nudging of Wenger towards the conclusion he seems so reluctant to reach, the one that says that winning the major prizes, rather then merely adorning the higher levels of the game right up to the moment you meet some of the sternest resistance, is something that invariably involves a compromise or two.

The one that Wenger may finally have to accept is that there are players out there who may not have had the benefit of his long-time grooming but who have about them the means to impose their will, and their talent, in the most challenging circumstances.

Failures to beat teams as currently abject as Sunderland and Blackburn at home on the run to a title, and Sunday's inability to drive home their advantage over a re-forming Liverpool, suggest again that Arsenal have, when the going gets serious, a desperate shortfall in such assertive characters.

We know about Cesc Fabregas and his brilliant inventions but there were times at the weekend when his face was crossed by that disillusionment so evident when he watched his team-mates flounder against Birmingham City at Wembley a few weeks ago. We also thought we knew about Samir Nasri, not least when he lit up France's victory over England, but he has not been so evident recently.

Such lack of impact when there is everything to play for seems to be rooted in the way of Arsenal's thinking and spirit and, let's be frank about this, in the character of too many of their players.

This side of some remarkable eruption at White Hart Lane tomorrow night, and a slip by Manchester United at Newcastle tonight, Arsène Wenger has to face the coldest of truths. It is that the best place to address his complaints is, as Dalglish suggested with such force, to himself.

The hard-luck story has, you have to suspect, pretty much run its course. It is certainly beginning to exhaust its audience.

Pulis poised for a Stoke street party

Having declared here the most unequivocal endorsement of Bolton Wanderers' right to a place in the FA Cup final, a certain humble revisionism would appear to be in order.

So let us agree that on any scale of prognostic error not only backing the team who lost 5-0, but also announcing their clear moral superiority over a Stoke City already in advanced preparations for unprecedented annihilation, ranks fairly high.

It also seems right to speculate that Stoke boss Tony Pulis, whose methods have not always won favourable recognition, may soon receive the honour that was given to his fabled predecessor Tony Waddington by the city council.

Waddington, who brought some beautiful football to the old Victoria Ground but did not advance beyond the semi-finals of the FA Cup, where the stumbling block was Arsenal despite their trailing 2-0 at Hillsborough, has a street named for him near the new stadium.

Where Pulis may never match Waddington, though, is in the fervour of his celebrations.

For many years Waddington and his entourage performed a solemn ritual at the Hotel Russell on the eve of the Cup final. It was the downing of copious bottles of champagne and the toast was almost always the same. It was to the winners of the Staffordshire Senior Cup.

Mourinho's wit is the surreal deal

The idea that El Clasico was something of a mismatch was never likely to survive the motivational wiles of Jose Mourinho – and so it was confirmed when his 10-man Real fought back for a draw at the weekend. Tomorrow night's second episode of four – the Spanish Cup final in Valencia – will be another severe challenge to the idea that Barcelona are just a step or two away from confirming their status as the team of the ages.

Barcelona reminded us of the beauty of their play at the Bernabeu but, despite the extra player who becomes such a huge asset in their kind of pressure game, they couldn't find a way to win. Mourinho's wit and surreal defiance were Real's 11th man, and produced a sense that Barça's inbuilt superiority after the 5-0 win earlier in the season may have been somewhat exaggerated.

It certainly underlined the folly of Roman Abramovich's eagerness to dispose of such a force – and why the identity of Sir Alex Ferguson's eventual successor at Old Trafford is no longer the source of much debate.