17 years of Champions League no joke for Arsenal

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 5, 2014 at 8:56 am •  Published: May 5, 2014
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LONDON (AP) — Yet again this season, especially if it fails to win the FA Cup final on May 17, Arsenal's report card will read: "Could have done better."

But one could also say that about any of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League, with the exception of the champion. What separates Arsenal from others is unfailing consistency: Under manager Arsene Wenger, the north London club always and without exception competes at the business end of football's toughest league.

Manchester United's tumble into post-Alex Ferguson mediocrity this season now leaves Arsenal as the only Premier League club to have never finished any lower than fourth since Wenger took charge there in October 1996.

This weekend, with a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion and fifth-place Everton losing to Manchester City, Arsenal again guaranteed a top-four finish to qualify for next season's Champions League. This is the 17th consecutive year that Wenger has secured a much sought-after spot for his team in that fabulously lucrative European competition.

In recent years, that consistency has been easy to mock as a rubber trophy, a poor ersatz for Arsenal's failure to get its hands on the real thing. Beating Hull at Wembley on May 17 would end a trophy drought that stretches back to Arsenal's last FA Cup win of 2005.

But 17 successive years of qualifying for the Champions League is no joke. In the previous five seasons alone, Champions League organizer UEFA paid a total of 150 million euros (more than $200 million at today's rates) to Arsenal for taking part in the competition and will pay roughly 30 million euros ($40 million) again this season for the club's run to the last 16, where it lost to reigning champion Bayern Munich.

Because it is the competition top players want to make their mark in, Champions League football gives Wenger a carrot to dangle when he shops for recruits this summer. The finance and prestige of consistently being in that competition have helped Arsenal keep its head above water in a tough past decade.

With Arsenal plowing money into its new Emirates Stadium, Wenger had to endure leaner times while billionaire owners at Chelsea and then Manchester City bankrolled on-field success and battled at the very top with Ferguson at Manchester United, England's wealthiest club. From 1998-2005, Arsenal always finished either first — winning three times — or second in the league. Since then it has been pushed down to third or fourth.

Arsenal lifting the FA Cup will make this season feel more half-full than half-empty for fans. Optimists among them will be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal should finish higher than fourth next season and perhaps even that the club has turned a corner.

In its old 38,000-seat Highbury Stadium, Arsenal wasn't earning anything close to what Manchester United was making on match days at Old Trafford. But the money-spinning 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium has narrowed that revenue gap since Arsenal moved there in 2006.



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