Future bright if Gunners reload
Arsenal's Messi mauling at Barcelona left Arsene Wenger feeling gloomy but TEAMtalk's Jon Holmes can see brighter skies ahead for the Gunners. "The defeat is difficult to handle because when you go out of the Champions League, the next day you are in front of a very empty future." So said Wenger after Tuesday's match, but he won't stay down in the dumps for long after his European Cup dreams were ended for another season. His immediate disappointment was understandable after Tuesday's dismantling in Spain, but whether or not he was referring to the coming weeks or taking a longer view, the prospect of an empty future was just a mirage. As is well known, due to financial constraints and belief in his own coaching acumen, Wenger has continued to enforce a 'natural growth' policy at Arsenal in recent seasons. While his rival managers in the Premier League's big four have splashed out more freely in the market, Wenger's occasional foray into eight-figure transfer fees (Nasri, Arshavin, Vermaelen etc) has always been balanced out by sales (Henry, Hleb, Adebayor, Toure etc). A blossoming crop of emerging talents and an experienced old guard have provided the bulk of his battalion. At the Nou Camp, the limits of Wenger's powers - both spending and schooling - were shown up by a shaggy-haired marvel from Argentina, aided by strong support from Catalan crusader Xavi. Both defences were far off full strength on the night, but while Barca could bring in a centre-back who cost £14million three years ago (Gabriel Milito), Wenger was forced to field Mikael Silvestre, experienced but nearing his expiry date. Absentees such as William Gallas and Alex Song were missed most across one or both legs of the tie, while the same applies further up the pitch for Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Yet Arsenal showed a greater appetite for battle in their second encounter with Barca, with the combative Abou Diaby and Denilson disrupting the hosts. Diaby helped his side gain the upper hand in the tie for the first time - dispossessing Milito and passing through for Theo Walcott, who was let off the hook for an underhit square pass by Nicklas Bendtner's tenacity. The damage done by Leo Messi's swift equaliser - profiting from a one-two with the outstretched foot of the statuesque Silvestre - was significant, but even then Arsenal could have tested Barca's defence again when Diaby failed to release Walcott. Despair was etched across Gael Clichy's face as Messi escaped to net his second goal, while the hat-trick goal - the result of a video-game chip lofted impudently over Almunia - confirmed the scorer's untouchable talent. Yet even at 5-3 down on aggregate, and after 135 minutes of a quarter-final tie where Barca had enjoyed the possession share of a whole pride of lions, Arsenal were still alive. Savaged, yes; but still alive, which considering the runaround they had received at the Emirates and in the wider open spaces of the Nou Camp was somewhat commendable. Bendtner's header which came back off the upright (the Dane harshly flagged offside) showed there was fight and spirit left in the visitors, and it was only in the 88th minute that Messi's fourth squeezed the life out of Barca's prey. So "a very empty future" loomed large for Wenger at that point, but with a week off in which to lick his wounds, he will no doubt come out fighting again. Arsenal have five Premier League games left as they maintain a title challenge that few thought them capable of last August. Should Chelsea prove uncatchable, claiming the runners-up spot ahead of Manchester United would also represent considerable progress - and Arsenal need only look at Liverpool's decline over the last 12 months to realise that. Beyong the end-of-term prizegiving, much depends on the Stan Kroenke v Alisher Usmanov boardroom battle at the Emirates which could even come to a head before the season is out. The American is just 10 shares short of the 30% threshold, which if met would invite him to make an offer for the rest. The Russian still holds ambitions to seize control of the Gunners himself. When the dust has settled, Wenger is likely to have far greater financial muscle at his disposal - and that should not mean he has to compromise his admirable ethos either. Stronger squad players can bolster his strategy and keep Arsenal on an upward curve.
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