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.

Mascherano still believes Neymar is “the future” of Barcelona

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The Neymar-to-PSG saga has escalated quickly, and signs of the Brazilian’s move to Paris are growing, but one Barcelona player remains confident that his compatriot will stay in Spain ahead of the new La Liga season.

[ MORE: Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

PSG has shown a willingness over recent days to meet Barca’s worldly $260 million transfer fee for the 25-year-old, while Neymar has reportedly alerted his teammates that he will in fact be heading to the Parc des Princes next month.

Veteran Barcelona midfielder/defender Javier Mascherano is one of the Blaugrana players that hopes Neymar will stick around and help anchor the La Liga giants for years to come despite a possible massive payday in store.

“Obviously he is young and I hope he’s here with Barcelona for many more years,” the Argentina defender said to ESPN.

“He is a really important player for the club. Because of his age, he’s the future of the club and we hope we can keep on counting on him.

“He’s accustomed to the pressure and people talking. There’s always going to be rumours and news around him.

“It’s really difficult to give advice. Firstly, I’m not anyone to be giving advice and secondly, I see him really happy here, really happy. [Barca] are a club that have made it possible for him to perform at his best. But after that, each person has to make their own decisions.”

If Neymar does bolt for Paris the complexion of the MSN-Barca attack changes drastically despite still boasting elite talents Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

[ MORE: Man United drops Man City in Houston “Manchester Derby” ]

Barca has done little in the transfer market this summer, only adding Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu and Nelson Semedo of Benfica. The club continues to pursue Liverpool attacker Philippe Coutinho, however, the Reds recently rejected a bid of $93 million.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.