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GENUINE dark horses.

That’s the new tag of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool after they romped to an English record away win over Porto and Reds fans everywhere embraced the prospect of their side having a real chance of winning the Champions League for the first time in over a decade.

With the ‘Fab Three’ finding the net with scary consistency, and a counter attacking game style perfectly suited to European competition, there’s a growing sense that Jurgen Klopp’s men are now a serious smoky to take out the title.

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Mikel Arteta warned about "scarred" Arsenal youngsters after upsetting Europa League exit

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Arsenal crashed out of the Europa League at the hands of Villerreal.

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Arsenal face 'rescue mission' against Villarreal with Mikel Arteta's future in the balance

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The Spaniard could be under severe pressure with defeat to Villarreal

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Arsenal out of Europe, Mikel Arteta under pressure, Stan Kroenke, takeover bid

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And just like that, across 90 passionless minutes, it was over.

For the first time in 25 years, Arsenal won’t play European football — its final legitimate claim to being a ‘big club’.

What’s worse is that it doesn’t look like it will again any time soon.

Because if Arsenal thought Arsene Wenger drove the club into the ground when he departed in 2018, then 2021 must look like the haunting abyss.

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Wenger was effectively run out of North London three years ago as fan discontent hit the roof over the club’s then 14-year Premier League drought.

The board eventually listened and the legendary manager was pushed aside for Spaniard Unai Emery, who would bring a fresh perspective, if nothing else.

That Emery was in the Villarreal dugout at the Emirates on Thursday night, celebrating passage through to the Europa League final — and the subsequent humiliation of his old employer — should say it all.

Arsenal only knows where it wants to go. It knows nothing of how to get there.

United through to UEL Final, Gunners out | 00:37

That’s not to say Emery was the right fit for Arsenal, because the results simply said otherwise.

Mikel Arteta was said to be the more on-brand signing for Arsenal as a former club captain, and student of the Barcelona-trained Pep Guardiola.

But after nearly two seasons in charge, Arsenal is still weak in defence, lacking thrust from its midfield and, ultimately, a spent attacking force.

What’s evident from watching Arsenal in the Arteta era is that the Spaniard has a clear vision of how he wants his team to play.

There’s an argument, however, that the vision is too specific; Arsenal looks robotic in possession, almost as if its players are running set plays, like a basketball team.

In a game as fluid as football, that attacking rigidity is doomed to fail. Players need creative licence. They need the freedom to fail. Scoring goals is an art, and no masterpieces have been painted out of a manual.

Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown said that Emery’s triumph over Arteta was the final embarrassment for the club in a sorry season.

“It’s a huge job at this football club. His inexperience has perhaps cost him,” Keown said of Arteta on BT Sports. “He’s still manager, but it felt this (Europa League) was the rescue package and his players didn’t turn up.

“He was outsmarted by the previous manager, which is a bit of an embarrassment.”

Speaking of Arsenal’s 2-1 aggregate loss in the Europa League semi-final, he added: “They seemed almost prepared to let the game flow away and I think that does come from the manager.” 

Keown said that Arteta now needs an “incredible” start to the 2021-22 season if he’s to keep his job.

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To lump all the blame on the manager, however, can be an overly simple analysis, even if it’s often a fair one.

The club is also made up of its players and ownership, and both are performing woefully, too.

Starting with the players; they also have a serious case to answer for their inability to execute Arteta’s vision, and failure to at least go down swinging.

As has long been the case, Arsenal’s worst defeats are more memorable for how the club lost, and not who it lost to.

Thursday night’s defeat to Villarreal was no different as Arsenal — needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit from the first away leg — had just two shots on target and quietly slipped out the Europa League exit.

“They’ve gone out with a whimper tonight,” Arsenal great Lee Dixon said on BBC Radio 5.

“Every one of those players should look at their performance and ask themselves whether they did enough, and if they’re honest with themselves, the answer will be ‘no’.

“I hope they’re in that changing room hurting, but I’m not sure if they are.”

Former England defender Matt Upson also suggested that the players are almost as much to blame for Arsenal’s repeat failings as Arteta.

“We can talk about Mikel Arteta being outsmarted by Unai Emery but I don’t think Villarreal had to do a lot and this is the problem — they sat in, defended well and did the basics well,” Upson said. “Arsenal never changed gear, they weren’t able to lift their level for this game.

“It was a typical Arsenal performance at the moment. The manager has a good idea of how he wants to coach and how he wants to play but none of that matters if you don’t have the application, the characters, the commitment and responsibility on the pitch.

“It’s not easy to create that – a lot is recruitment but a lot is being able to tap into people and get a reaction out of players.

“It appears to be going in the wrong direction for Mikel Arteta.”

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Poor attitudes aside, Arsenal will struggle to improve its squad from here with the world’s best players obsessed with silverware and European football.

Arsenal can offer neither.

Meanwhile, its best and most expensive player, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, is fighting to get his career back on track after a season from hell.

Since signing a new three-year deal last year, he scored one goal in an 11-game run, took leave to spend time with his sick mother, was dropped for the North London derby after arriving late, and contracted malaria.

As for Arsenal’s other biggest signing of the past decade, and most potent creative force, Mesut Ozil; he was let go mid-season for reasons that may never be clear.

Only two Arsenal players — Alexandre Lacazette (13) and Aubameyang (10) — have scored more than five goals this Premier League season. The club has only found the back of the net 46 times — 25 goals less than Manchester City, 20 less than Manchester United and 15 less than Leicester City.

Last to blame is the club’s ownership, American billionaire entrepreneur Stan Kroenke and his holding company Kroenke Sports and Entertainment.

Since becoming the majority shareholder in 2011, Kroenke has slowly reshaped the club into a soulless husk whose soul purpose is to drive his company’s profits.

Any argument to suggest otherwise was wiped out last month when Arsenal was one of 12 clubs to join the European Super League; a fickle attempt to breakaway from league football in favour of an invite-only competition that would allow the world’s richest and most powerful clubs to control the profits.

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Since the ESL blew up spectacularly in the clubs’ faces after a stunning fan revolt, Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek has reached out to KSE about a $3.2bn takeover, backed by Arsenal legends Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira.

A joint statement from Kroenke and his son, Josh, said: “We will not entertain any offer.”

So where to now for Arsenal?

A manager who can’t impart his vision, and has no obvious replacement.

A playing group lacking leaders. Lacking desire. Lacking talent.

An ownership with no investment in the club, other than its financial one. An ownership which refuses to leave.

One of the catchiest chants from the Gunners’ faithful repeats the line ‘Ooh to be a Gooner’.

It was surely never intended to mean anything remotely like this.

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