Arsenal place among Europe's elite at risk

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LONDON - Arsenal's customary place among the European elite is under threat as they prepare to visit Fulham on Sunday to conclude another disappointing season that once offered so much but will end without a trophy.

The Gunners will complete a sixth successive season without any silverware and their spot at European football's top table is no longer the formality it seemed a matter of weeks ago as they go into their last Premier League match of the campaign.

Manchester City beat Stoke on Tuesday to leapfrog Arsenal in third place and should the Londoners finish fourth, they will have to negotiate a tricky Champions League play-off in August to qualify for the lucrative group stage.

Previously that qualification has never been in doubt but Arsenal's self-belief, air of invincibility and undying faith in manager Arsene Wenger to deliver the goods have been shattered over a damaging three-month period.

Arsenal face their toughest close season since Wenger moved to North London nearly 15 years ago and there has even been some media speculation that the Frenchman might decide to leave the Emirates before the next campaign starts in August.

Arsenal supporters have done the previously unthinkable this season too - complained to radio phone-ins about Wenger, booed him and his team and criticised the board after a 6.5 percent price hike for already expensive season tickets.

These are not settled days on the pitch or in the boardroom at Emirates Stadium and while tangible success is tantalisingly close, it is not close enough for many supporters.

SHOCK DEFEAT

Tensions began to mount in February as Arsenal were in contention for an unprecedented quadruple haul of trophies with the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup all in their sights.

However, a shock 2-1 defeat by Birmingham City in the League Cup Final on February 27 triggered what has become a crisis and less than two weeks later, Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona and the FA Cup by Manchester United.

Only two wins in 10 league games since the end of February saw them tumble out of the title race with Sunday's 2-1 home defeat to Aston Villa emphasising all their failings in one match - typically superb passing moves, resulting in too few goals and too many defensive errors costing them points.

Arsenal have a potentially superb goalkeeper in Wojciech Szczesny, talented youngsters like Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott and the wonderful skills of Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri but too many others have failed to deliver and the collective lacks a killer instinct.

Wenger has been perplexed with how a team that played superbly to beat Barcelona 2-1 in the first leg of their Champions League defeat could squander a 4-0 lead at Newcastle United to draw 4-4, or be 3-1 up at arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur and be pegged back to 3-3.

TORTURED SOUL

Bafflingly, they failed to score against Sunderland or Blackburn Rovers in 0-0 home draws, suffered a poor defeat at Bolton Wanderers, conceded a stoppage time penalty to Liverpool in a 1-1 draw and yet beat Manchester United 1-0.

Wenger has looked a tortured soul for much of the second half of the season, throwing water bottles around, arguing with whoever has been nearby and looking utterly distraught as his team floundered and the glint of silverware faded away.

"We have gone through difficult times, especially since losing the League Cup Final," Wenger has said.

"At times we have lacked maturity under pressure. We have had a lot of big disappointments and I think it has had a subconscious effect on the team. Yet we can play so well, and that makes it all the more frustrating."

He has also hinted at other frustrations since a change in the boardroom: "I am a football man, not an office man, and you can take that any way you like," he said two weeks ago.

Arsenal fans have also been frustrated that Wenger has not spent much in the transfer market in the last three windows, and that some of his buys have not been all that successful.

The club's future remains promising but unfulfilled on the pitch and the arrival of U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke as the club's new principal shareholder in the boardroom has added a level of uncertainty for many, including Wenger, off it.

Some fans are still not convinced the team are heading in the right direction and a protest march before the Villa game about Arsenal's "increasingly corporate" direction has added to the sense of disharmony at the club.

If Wenger spends wisely in the close season and attracts the players he wants - relegated West Ham United's England midfielder Sott Parker would be an option - the disappointments of this campaign may be quickly forgotten.

However, next season the pressure on the Frenchman, who was famously dubbed 'The Professor', will be even greater.

Six years without a trophy has been bad enough for the fans, seven years may be too much to bear for everyone connected with the club.