Two hundred and fifty.
That’s how many times Arsene Wenger strode out of tunnels and onto the biggest stages of all. Two hundred and fifty European games. That’s how many Arsenal’s departing manager oversaw throughout 22 glittering years in charge.
And zero European trophies. Zero.
Arsenal’s last opportunity to give Wenger a parting gift fizzled out into tears and zombie-like stares on Thursday at the Wanda Metropolitano in Spain. The Gunners fell 1-0 to Atletico Madrid, and 2-1 on aggregate, in a Europa League semifinal that really should have been theirs.
Diego Costa landed the knockout blow. He revived his reputation as an Arsenal killer with the only goal of the night, holding off Hector Bellerin and lifting his finish over David Ospina.
Diego Costa gets a BIG goal for Atletico!
Don't worry Arsenal fans, you still just need 1 goal to send this to extra time. pic.twitter.com/cbQYRHLZN2
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 3, 2018
After 80 minutes of 11-v-10 soccer but a dispiriting 1-1 draw back at the Emirates, Costa’s opener didn’t change the task for Arsenal on the night. The Gunners needed a goal to maintain Wenger’s European journey – to preserve his shot at glory. But they found no route past Atletico’s unforgiving defense.
Wenger had come closest to glory in 2006 at the Stade de France. In his lone Champions League final, his Gunners led Barcelona with 20 minutes remaining, despite playing most of the game with 10 men. But goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti sent Arsenal tumbling back to square one. And never again did they get that close to the finish line.
In fact, they became increasingly ordinary. After three consecutive quarterfinal appearances from 2008-2010, Wenger failed to win another Champions League knockout-round tie. He and Arsenal began to slip. As the Premier League strengthened, they were left behind. They sunk out of the top four for the first time in two decades and into the Europa League. And now they are headed back next season.
Their European results reflected the club’s stagnation and deterioration. They lacked the ambition necessary to return to the top of the sport, then the infrastructural quality to stay within reach.
They have been, in a way, the anti-Atleti, a club also short on resources, but full of vigor and soul. The Spaniards have now reached five European finals in nine seasons, and will be favored over Marseille – the victor in the other semifinal – to win a third Europa League crown. They have shown grit and class, and have shown just how valuable a combination of the two can be.
And they have shattered dreams. Dreams of glory. On Thursday, dreams of giving Wenger the sendoff he deserved, back in France, with champagne dripping from his face, a European trophy finally aloft.
“I want to finish this love story well,” Wenger had said prior to Thursday’s match.
But the love story instead had a villain – a familiar one. The night that could have been Wenger’s was instead Costa’s, and Atletico Madrid’s. They are going back to a European final. Wenger probably never will.
“I’m very, very sad to leave the club with that exit,” Wenger said after the match, reportedly on the verge of tears. “And it will take some time to recover.”
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