It is a dubious distinction, but currently, laying claim to the title of the “biggest club never to win the Champions League” is just about all Arsenal have got when it comes to asserting their credentials as a member of Europe’s elite.
There may be arguments to contest that statement among supporters of Roma, Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid and Rangers, among others, but Arsenal’s history, financial might, fan base and annual presence in the Champions League places them above all their rivals for the “honour” of being considered the best of the rest.
And with Bayern Munich in town on Tuesday to complete the formality of their round-of-16 tie against Arsene Wenger’s team, having run up a 5-1 advantage during last month’s one-sided first-leg in the Allianz Arena, Arsenal will have to wait another year at least before attempting to shake off their unwanted status.
Having slipped out of the top four in the Premier League with a 3-1 defeat at Liverpool at the weekend, and with growing uncertainty over the future of star forward Alexis Sanchez (who was reportedly dropped after a training ground bust-up), Arsenal might not even be around to have their annual crack at the Champions League next season. Bayern need only avoid a 4-0 defeat to send the Gunners packing in the knockout stages once again.
At some point, however, Arsenal need to learn how to punch their weight in the Champions League because the same old story is becoming an embarrassment.
To be regarded as the biggest club never to win the Champions League might have its positives for those charged with sustaining the Arsenal money-making machine which has left over £100 million in cash reserves in the club’s vault. Yet Atletico, with much smaller resources, have progressed to two Champions League finals in the last three seasons, while Italian champions Juventus made it to the final against Barcelona in 2015 despite the financial restraints of playing in 41,000-capacity stadium in a cash-strapped Serie A.
Neither Atleti or Juve can compete with Arsenal’s wealth, but both clubs are well-run and well-coached, with astute player recruitment teams that enable them to make up for their financial disadvantages against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Arsenal and Wenger, meanwhile, really should have no excuses for their combined failures in the Champions League. The club has competed in the competition in every season since the turn of the century, but managed to reach just one final — the 2006 defeat against Barcelona in Paris — and have failed to go beyond the round-of-16 since 2009-10.
But just consider Arsenal’s strengths and how poorly the club is playing its hand.
They remain London’s biggest and best-supported club, despite Chelsea’s rise over the past decade, and are second-only to Manchester United in terms of Premier League average attendances.
Only United (20) and Liverpool (18) have won more English titles than Arsenal (13) and only United have won as many FA Cups (12). And when it comes to signing players, they have the advantage of being a London club — a selling point which proved decisive when Sanchez rejected Liverpool in favour of a £35 million move to the Emirates from Barcelona in 2014.
But Arsenal somehow allow themselves to under-play their strengths.
Chelsea have been much more successful in exploiting their London location than Arsenal, while Wenger has overseen a decade of under-spending, failing to capitalise on the club’s status as one of England’s traditional powerhouses at a time when Chelsea and Manchester City raised the financial bar due to their immensely wealthy owners.
Quite simply, Arsenal have allowed themselves to drift and the blame for that must be shared equally by Wenger, chief executive Ivan Gazidis and owner Stan Kroenke. Between them, the three men have settled on the bare minimum — top four finish and progression to the Champions League knockouts — as being satisfactory, but the chickens are now coming home to roost.
An unfulfilled Sanchez is projecting the image of a player who is already contemplating his next destination; Wenger is seeing his reputation eroded with every failure and the supporters are losing patience like never before.
The mood at the Emirates on Tuesday is likely to be vitriolic, with demonstrations planned by fans who have grown tired of the annual disappointment of falling short. But Arsenal only have themselves to blame. As a club, they have so much in their favour, yet they do not play to their strengths.
Look back over the history of the Champions League and European Cup and their absence from the roll of honour is striking. The likes of Hamburg, Nottingham Forest, PSV Eindhoven, Aston Villa, Borussia Dortmund and Marseille have all had their names inscribed on the trophy, but Arsenal have come close only once.
That isn’t good enough. Yet the concern for Arsenal fans is that there is no sign of their long wait ending anytime soon.