As Arsenal continue to fail against Europe’s elite, how much further can Wenger take them?

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At the end of his post-match press conference following Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was asked about why his side keeps faltering in the final stages of the UEFA Champions League, year after year.

Wenger paused and then gave a measured response that concealed the very reason why Arsenal have failed to win a trophy since 2005, and now their participation in this seasons Champions League is hanging by a thread.

“It isn’t over because we will fight until then end,” Wenger said. “Make of it what you will, but in the last five years we’ve played Barcelona twice and Bayern twice in the last 16. They are not average.”

But against the top teams this season, and in the past, too many times Arsenal has been average.

That may seem like a knee-jerk response on a team just beaten 2-0 by the reigning European Champions, after going down to 10-men and defending superbly for most of the match, but it isn’t. The reason they’ve faced Barca and Bayern four-straight times in the knockout stages, is that they haven’t been good enough in the group stages to avoid the big boys.

(MORE: Three things we learned in Arsenal’s battling defeat to Bayern Munich)

Since 2006 the Gunners haven’t fared well in the first leg of knockout stage games in the Champions League, winning just two of their 12 opening matches of a home and away series. Add in their results against the current top four in the Premier League this season, and it doesn’t make happy reading for Arsenal fans. Liverpool at home, won 2-0. Manchester City away, lost 6-3. Chelsea at home, drew 0-0. Liverpool away, lost 5-1. Just one victory in four matches, and they still have Chelsea to play away and Man City at home.

All that shows that Arsenal, once again, struggle to take down the top teams when it really matters.

source: AP
Ozil has failed to score in his last 14 games, and missed a pivotal PK vs. Bayern in the biggest game of the year.

This isn’t me slagging off the Gunners, I respect the way they play and the ideals Wenger has drilled into his charges. For years he’s had his spending limited due to the construction of the Emirates Stadium, and the fact that the one player he’s now splashed all his cash on (Mesut Ozil) looks like a bad buy is neither here nor there.

But you just get the feeling Wenger has taken this team as far as he can.

With no new contract signed, officially, the 64-year-old manager is keeping everyone waiting when it comes to his future in charge of the Gunners.

Many expect him to sign a long-term deal before this summer, but for the sake of Arsenal and the evolution of the club, maybe Wenger should step aside.

(MORE: Wenger – Robben ‘made a lot of’ Szczesny contact; penalty ‘killed the game’)

If the Gunners win a trophy this season, either the PL crown or the FA Cup look more likely now, then that might be a good point for Wenger to step down. However if another trophyless season plays out in the red half of North London, should Wenger stick around?

Regardless of whether or not Wenger stays on, Arsenal must turn the screw and get the job done against the big boys. It’s no good passing the PL’s also-rans into submission and dazzling against the weaker teams in Europe. It’s time the Gunners started firing on the biggest stages of all. How they do it is a complex equation that, quite simply, can be overcome by spending huge amounts of money on new players. Unless that happens, Arsenal will continue to be the nearly men in the PL and in Europe. But ultimately the foundations for success are there, it’s just getting over the final hurdle that’s been Arsenal’s main problem in the last eight years. That extra bit of quality needed in the biggest games of the season has alluded them, and has been replaced by silly mistakes. The defeat to Munich on Wednesday was a prime example of that. Will a new manager and a fresh approach bring that added nous that had evaded the Gunners?

They now have a one off game against Bayern awaiting them in mid-March where Arsenal can finally show what they’re made of. They won 2-0 at the Allianz Arena last season in the last 16 of the UCL, so why can’t they do it now? Their squad is stronger and more resolute than 12 months ago when they last visited Munich. But they seem to be no closer to taking down the big teams when it really matters.

Arsenal’s season is entering a pivotal stretch and their campaign could, as it often has in recent years, come crumbling down around them.

Barkley ineligible to make Chelsea debut in FA Cup replay

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Ross Barkley was expected — and himself expected — to make his Chelsea debut on Wednesday, when the Blues host Championship side Norwich City in a third-round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge.

Alas, the 24-year-old English midfielder has been ruled ineligible due to a lesser-known and -applied rules surrounding transfers and player registration.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup | Wednesday preview ]

Barkley completed his move from Everton to Chelsea, for $20 million, on Jan. 5, the day before Chelsea and Norwich drew 0-0 at Carrow Road. In order to be eligible for Wednesday’s replay, Barkley is required to have completed his transfer prior to the noon cut-off the day prior to the original tie. While the time of official approval is unknown, Barkley’s move wasn’t announced by the club until after 5 p.m. in the UK.

As such, Chelsea will attempt to set up a behind-closed-doors friendly this week, in order to provide Barkley a bit of game action as he builds fitness and sharpness ahead of a potential debut against Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com). Barkley hasn’t seen a single minute of first-team action this season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the summer.

FA Cup preview: Three more PL sides face 3rd-round replays

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Three more Premier League sides, including a top-four fighter, attempt to join a dozen of their top-flight contemporaries in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Wednesday…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea and Swansea City host Championship opposition in the form of Norwich City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, respectively, while Bournemouth will make the 500-mile roundtrip to take on League One side Wigan Athletic.

The Blues, who now sit fourth in the PL after their disappointing 0-0 draw with Leicester City, could manage only a scoreless draw with the Canaries at Carrow Road earlier this month. They are winless in their last four games across all competitions — all draws — including their League Cup semifinal first-leg draw with Arsenal last week; the last three of those all finished without a single goal scored. Chelsea, who are tied with Liverpool with the fourth-most FA Cups in their history (7), lost out to Arsenal in last season’s final at Wembley Stadium.

Swansea are undoubtedly the side on highest Cupset alert, as Wolves are the runaway leaders and champions-elect in the Championship (10 points clear after 27 of 46 rounds played), thus able to devote more attention to the FA Cup than the typical second-division side. With the two sides separated by just a single place in the English footballing pyramid (Swansea, 20th in the PL; Wolves, 1st in the Championship), they appear destined to swap places by the end of May.

Meanwhile, Bournemouth’s punishment for conceding a pair of early goals to a side currently 32 places below them in the pyramid, is the long, midweek trip from the south coast to the DW Stadium in the northwest of England. It was the Premier Leaguers who needed a two second-half goals, including Steve Cook‘s 90th-minute equalizer, to draw level at home in the first meeting.

Tuesday’s FA Cup replay actionFULL ROUNDUP

Leicester City 2-0 Fleetwood Town
West Ham United 1-0 (AET) Shrewsbury Town
Mansfield Town 1-4 Cardiff City
Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 Carlisle United
Reading 3-0 Stevenage

Agent: 37-year-old Ronaldinho has retired

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SAO PAULO (AP) The brother and agent of 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho announced Tuesday that the former Brazil and Barcelona playmaker has retired from football.

Roberto Assis made the announcement to Brazilian media on behalf of the 37-year-old midfielder, who played his last professional match in 2015 for Brazil’s Fluminense.

“Ronnie’s professional career is over. He wants to be a football ambassador, do charity, and work with his friends in music from now on,” Assis told The Associated Press.

Assis hopes to schedule some farewell matches for Ronaldinho after the World Cup in Russia, which ends July 15. The initial plan is to play games in Brazil, Europe and Asia and to also get Brazil’s national team involved, Assis said.

Last July, Ronaldinho said on the sidelines of a friendly in Chechnya that was he was “too old” to return to action.

The Brazilian’s decorated career also includes one World Cup title (2002), one Champions League victory (2006) and two Spanish league titles with Barcelona, and two FIFA world player of the year awards (2004 and 2005).

Ronaldinho started his professional career at Gremio in southern Brazil in 1998. He left for Paris Saint-Germain in 2001 and was signed by Barcelona two seasons later.

At the Camp Nou, he was the engine of a team that took Barca back to the limelight. However, after a series of club trophies, Ronaldinho’s career took a downturn. He was often accused by Brazilian and Spanish media of lacking professionalism, despite his mentoring of a then youthful Lionel Messi.

In 2008, with Messi then leading Barcelona, Ronaldinho left for AC Milan. Despite being part of a team that won Serie A in 2011, he failed to reach his previous heights as a player.

When returning home became a real option, Ronaldinho frustrated Gremio’s efforts to re-sign him and joined Flamengo instead.

Disappointing performances in Rio de Janeiro took him to Atletico Mineiro, a club that then was more often fighting against relegation than for titles.

Yet a more mature Ronaldinho took Atletico to a different level.

In his last great run, Ronaldinho carried Atletico with his superb passes and dazzling dribbles to second place in the 2012 Brazilian Championship.

A year later, he was the key to his club lifting its first Copa Libertadores, South America’s most prestigious club trophy, but his hopes of playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil were dashed.

Ronaldinho left to play for Mexico’s Queretaro in 2014-15, but was mostly on the bench.

He played his last seven matches as a professional for Fluminense, though his performances were a far cry from his best days in Spain.

Now living in Rio, he has appeared in advertisements all over the world since leaving Fluminense.

USL granted 2018 2nd-division sanctioning by U.S. Soccer

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U.S. Soccer has officially granted the United Soccer League second-division sanctioning, behind first-division Major League Soccer, for the upcoming 2018 season, as well as first-division status for the National Women’s Soccer League.

[ MORE: Landon Donovan unveiled by Liga MX side Club Leon ]

USL, which will feature 33 teams in 2018, had been granted temporary second-division sanctioning, alongside the North American Soccer League, in 2017. As NASL’s demise continued and accelerated — the league will not begin play this spring, opting instead for a late-summer kickoff, after a number of its teams either folded or jumped ship to USL — USL, with the help of MLS, quickly pounced to capitalize — from U.S. Soccer’s statement:

Sanctioning allows NWSL and USL to operate a Division I and II league, respectively, during the 2018 season and includes a two-year pathway to full compliance with the Professional League Standards. USL has demonstrated substantial progress toward reaching full compliance since being granted provisional Division II sanctioning in 2017.

Conspiracy theorist’s take: USL supplanted NASL as the U.S.’s second-most viable professional men’s league — and more importantly, being granted official second-division status — paves the way for MLS to, at some point well down the line — say, 2030 or so — implement its own multi-tiered system of promotion and relegation, featuring anywhere between 60 and 80 teams, while still remaining a single-entity structure closed to the lower reaches of the sport in America, as the lines separating MLS and USL have only become more and more blurred in recent years.

[ MORE: Donovan ready to “win championships” after ending retirement ]

MLS realizes that public demand for promotion and relegation in the U.S. has grown significantly louder in recent years — particularly given the climate of the sport after the men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, and subsequent ongoing presidential-election campaign — thus an open-but-not-really-open system which satisfies neither side will eventually be the end result.