Arsene Wenger: Is Arsenal's Bayern Munich defeat end of the road?
Arsene Wenger stood in isolation and desolation in his technical area as the pain he suffers this time every year nagged away at him once more - but now it was accompanied by an inescapable feeling of finality.
As his Arsenal side dissolved and were brutally dispatched by Bayern Munich - once they awoke from 45 minutes of complacency - Wenger will have felt every goal, every added humiliation, like a blow to the solar plexus. Five second-half goals. Five more questions to ponder.
A proud man, Wenger will have surveyed the thousands of empty seats that increased in number at Emirates Stadium with every Bayern strike on the way to a humiliating 10-2 aggregate loss and surely questioned what more he can do at Arsenal.
The Gunners were out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage for the seventh successive season. However, few nights could have been more chastening than this one for the man who has known such glory, but who now may be contemplating the end of the road.
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Once the German champions were prodded into life by a generous penalty award and a red card after Laurent Koscielny fouled Robert Lewandowski, they delivered a ruthless verdict on just how far Arsenal have been marginalised from the elite European group they once occupied with style and with regularity. It underscored a dramatic fall from grace.
Wenger was not subjected to widespread rebellion or mutiny inside the stadium, but there were ominous signs that can often be used as indicators that a manager's future has reached its defining moment.
A group of Arsenal fans, not huge in number but noisy, led a protest march on Emirates Stadium from their old Highbury home, brandishing banners that read "Enough Is Enough", "No New Contract", "All Good Things Come To An End" - and what looked like a rather hastily assembled affair that read: "Stubborn. Stale. Clueless."
They chanted "Arsene Wenger - You're Killing Our Club" - harsh and heartbreaking words aimed at a man who, whatever even his fiercest critic will say, loves Arsenal and has done so much to enrich them.
It was strictly a minority. But an even more significant indicator may have been the large number of empty seats inside the Emirates. It was announced that 59,911 tickets had been sold - but it was fair to say 59,911 had not pitched up, many clearly deciding they had better things to do despite having shelled out hard-earned cash.
Arsenal equipped themselves well for 45 minutes, but the whole night and performance had the stench of too little, too late - and there is no good news, no consolation, no hard luck story about successive 5-1 defeats in the Champions League.
The manner in which Arsenal collapsed once Bayern equalised was an alarming barometer of fragile confidence, belief and morale. It was understandable heads would go down as hope was snuffed out, but the manner in which they were picked apart was horrendous. Players were stretched hopelessly out of position and Bayern almost scored at will.
Alexis Sanchez was even robbed by Arjen Robben, hardly a tackling heavyweight, on the edge of his own area for one goal in an incident that summed up the Chile forward's night after the controversy of his exclusion at Liverpool.
Sanchez was a central figure amid stories of training ground unrest but he was restored here as Arsenal went in search of a miracle.
He was greeted warmly by Arsenal's fans when his name was announced, but he was not able to make a point to Wenger or anyone else on this night and his wave as he was substituted late on could even have been construed as the start of a long farewell between now and the end of the season.
After taking his seat on the bench, Sanchez was pictured chuckling briefly, something that riled some supporters on social media, despite it being impossible to determine precisely what he had found humorous.
The backdrop to this dead rubber - there was never any realistic chance of this Arsenal side in their current condition reviving it even when they took the lead on the night - was a cloud of uncertainty over the club that is becoming increasingly toxic.
There are no guarantees about the future of arguably the three highest-profile figures at Arsenal, a state of affairs creating a mood of chaos around Emirates Stadium.
Wenger is giving no clues as to whether he will sign a two-year deal that is on the table, amid mounting criticism of his methods. Sanchez looks certain to depart in the summer as his relationship with the club fractures. And Mesut Ozil's stock has fallen as his own contract situation is shrouded in mystery.
This would be a situation to prey on the nerves and frustrations of Arsenal's fans even before it is set alongside a team that look further away than ever from a Premier League title challenge and now suffering from one of their most humiliating, harrowing Champions League experiences.
The double figures aggregate loss actually might have been worse and this latest last-16 exit is made even more painful by being cloaked in the feeling of an end of an era after a Champions League story that has increasingly become one of diminishing returns for Wenger and Arsenal.
They were made to look light years away from Europe's elite by Bayern. Wenger may have cursed the luck of the draw once more - and even the officials - but there was no escaping a seventh straight exit at the last-16 stage.
|No escaping the facts|
|The Gunners are the first side to lose five consecutive home knockout ties in Champions League history.|
|Arsene Wenger's side suffered the joint second heaviest aggregate defeat in Champions League history (2-10), and the highest for an English team.|
|This is the first time Arsenal have conceded five goals at home since November 1998 (against Chelsea in League Cup - a 5-0 loss).|
As Arsenal fans gathered on Holloway Road and around Emirates Stadium before kick-off the pervading emotion was gloom. There was no sense this Arsenal could frighten Bayern in the same way they frightened AC Milan here almost five years ago to the day, when they had the Italian giants rocking at 3-0 down after losing the first leg 4-0.
And so it proved. Not this time. Wenger's Arsenal, in this Champions League context at least, now find even a gallant near-miss beyond them.
If there is the growing sense that this is Wenger's final fling, there was also an ominous feeling of an extra layer of fear to add to the frustration of Arsenal's supporters. Is this finally the time they end up without Champions League football for the first time this century?
Wenger's sense of pride would be damaged enough by an elimination as wounding as this, an exit that left no room for debate about Arsenal's reduced status. It might hurt even more if he had to start life outside the European footballing environment that has become his and Arsenal's natural home.
The Gunners have always managed to find a place in the Premier League's top four but this now faces its most serious threat, with Chelsea the champions-elect and Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool (and arguably even Manchester United) all looking in better shape.
Wenger, who wrote about "our pride and our honour" being at stake in his match notes, might have to swallow his own pride should Arsenal end up with only a Europa League place at the end of this season. There was no pride or honour to take away from this night.
Would Wenger, at 67, have the desire to effectively start again and rebuild in Europe's second-tier tournament, or would that be a timely cue for him to step aside for a successor?
There is still time for Wenger to salvage a measure of success and respectability from Arsenal's season and either stay or go on a high of sorts.
Arsenal will be overwhelming favourites to reach the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley with a last-eight tie against non-league Lincoln City awaiting them this weekend, while there is still the top-four place on offer.
The FA Cup has been the only silverware sustaining Wenger and Arsenal in the barren years since the title triumph of "The Invincibles" in 2003-04.
If - and it is still a big "if" - he wins it, it will allow Wenger, Arsenal and their supporters a celebration. But even that may not prove to be enough to soothe the atmosphere of unease in this part of north London.
|Arsenal's last-16 hoodoo|
|2012-13||Bayern Munich||3-3 (Bayern win on away goals)|
|2014-15||Monaco||3-3 (Monaco win on away goals)|
Chastening nights like these, when the cavernous gap between Arsenal and those they wish to challenge was cruelly exposed, may carry more weight when it comes to Wenger's verdict on his own future and that of the supporters on him.
Wenger was spared at the final whistle, with only a few jeers to be heard because so many had left. It looked and felt like a lonely existence for Arsenal's manager.
He simply shook his head, a mixture of disappointment at the result and what he later said he felt was an injustice at the hands of officials - which carried a note of desperation and straw-clutching when examined through the prism of both legs.
"Every Good Story Has An Ending" read one large banner being paraded outside the stadium before kick-off.
And as Wenger headed down the tunnel and Arsenal's fans headed out into the night, it was hard to escape the growing belief that this one is moving towards its final chapter.