Playing like second best

Updated: April 18, 2011, 12:28 PM ET
By David Hirshey | Special to

WengerAdrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesArsene Wenger gives the evil eye to Liverpool's Lucas and Luis Suarez after the controversial ending at the Emirates.

I know just how Jamie Carragher feels.

After watching 12 minutes of a supposed eight minutes of extra time in Sunday's Arsenal-Liverpool exercise in Gooners masochism, I required five people to carry me out of my local pub on a stretcher.

At least Liverpool's aging warrior-captain was knocked cold by his clash of heads with young teammate John Flanagan -- so much so that he later told reporters that he "can't remember anything" -- while I was all too conscious even after sucking down twin tanks of oxygen and six pints.

I blame myself.

If Manchester United embody fighting spirit and dragging back points from the abyss, this Arsenal team is the poster child for the art of implosion. Every week, the Gunners invent entirely ingenious ways to collapse.

Blow a 2-0 lead at home to a Spurs team that last won an away EPL match against a topflight side when Prince William still had hair? Check.

Hurling away a 4-0 halftime lead against Mighty Newcastle? Yup, done it.

Crash out of the Champions League, lose to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final, get bounced from the FA Cup in a space of a month? Yes, to the third power.

Yet Sunday's choke job may be Arsenal's finest because the Gunners managed the trick of going from the sky above to the mud below in only four minutes.

After being awarded a nimbus cloud-soft penalty in the 98th minute -- which Robin van Persie coolly converted to make it 1-0 and lights-out to Liverpool -- my friend Andrew disgustedly handed me a $20 bill to pay off his bet as the ball nestled in the net. All Arsenal had to do at that point was to see out the last few ticks of the clock for a tough, last-minute victory against an undermanned Liverpool side. OK, so those last few ticks became four excruciating minutes on referee Andre Marriner's sundial, but does anyone apart from Arsene Wenger actually believe this gives the Gunners an excuse?

[+] EnlargeDirk Kuyt
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesDirk Kuyt slotted home the game-tying penalty in the dying seconds of the game to all but kill Arsenal's hope of winning the title.

First, they commit a silly foul on the razor's edge of the penalty area to give Liverpool the free kick, which Luis Suarez slammed directly into the Arsenal wall. Then, as the Emirates faithful collectively exhaled, thinking that their heroes had Red Deviled an opponent into stunned submission, up popped their clownish defender Emmanuel Eboue to cause them to gasp in horror. As the Suarez shot caromed off the mass of Arsenal defenders in the box, the ball running harmlessly away from goal, Eboue pushed Lucas Leiva, who knew enough to gratefully fall over himself.

When Marriner pointed to the spot, I remembered a report in the British tabloids I had read while in London last week. It said that Spurs was planning "a shock swoop" for Eboue next season. So the thought occurred: Was this the Ivorian defender's way of ingratiating himself to Harry Redknapp while also exacting revenge on the Arsenal fans who had jeered him mercilessly two years ago for his hapless play?

Maybe I was just being a paranoid Gooner -- or is that redundant? -- but as Piers Morgan tweeted to golfer Ian Poulter on Sunday: "it's [supporting Arsenal] actually damaging my health now."

Certainly, it has affected Wenger's eyesight. The hopelessly myopic Frenchman, whose red-and-white-tinted contact lenses are programmed to block out any and all Arsenal fouls, only saw Leiva flopping to the ground, not Eboue shoving him there.

Gesticulating angrily after Marriner's penalty call, Wenger turned to Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish and made it known that he thought Leiva had dived. King Kenny's eloquent response consisted of two words that have been directed this season toward Wenger by other EPL managers, including Fulham's Mark Hughes, Stoke City's Tony Pulis and Birmingham's Alex McLeish. Only Dalglish uttered them loudly enough to be picked up by the touch-line TV Rooneyphone -- "Piss off."

It is safe to say that this Shakespearean tragicomedy was not what Stan Kroenke had in mind when he finally won his long and tedious bidding war with a Russian-Uzbek tycoon for control of Arsenal this past week. The American was at the Emirates on Sunday taking in his first game since investing an estimated $1.2 billion in the North London club. Decked out in an official Arsenal blazer and tie and sporting what looked like a dead ferret on his head -- a gift from Donald Trump, perhaps? -- the famously shy sports tycoon appeared totally befuddled when the camera panned to him in the director's box.

It's bad enough he had to witness Arsenal's inability to break down a Liverpool defense featuring a 17-year-old, an 18-year-old and Sotirios Kyrgiakos for nearly the entire second half. Big Stan also had to endure the surreal stoppage-time farce that included the sight of his manager crouched down, staring forlornly at the ground, unable to bear watching Dirk Kuyt's spot kick -- an effort that finally eliminated any remaining fantasies that Arsenal was still alive in the Prem race and forced me to hand back that $20 bill to my friend Andrew.

That Liverpool effectively had just presented the tiebreaking 19th league championship to its despised rival, United, is a bitter irony that is surely not lost on Andrew and his fellow denizens of the Kop.

The Gunners are now six long points behind United with six games to play, having only themselves to blame for perhaps the most pathetic title challenge in EPL history. In the past month, the Red Devils gave Arsenal every opportunity to overhaul them at the top of the table, but the Gunners had neither the mental fortitude nor the forceful leadership to take advantage. A succession of dispiriting draws with Sunderland, West Brom and Blackburn only served to underline the dreamy bluster that was the Arsenal quest for the quadruple.

So after Sunday's game when a straight-faced Wenger told the media, "We are on a 15-game unbeaten [Premier League] run, but recently we have not taken enough points," you had to wonder whether even Le Grand Fromage believes the risible drivel he's spewing or simply enjoys the parody of his postmatch soliloquies.

Last week he vehemently defended his record against those Arsenal fans who had expressed their disappointment at the Gunners' failure to win a trophy since 2005, positing that second place was still a worthy accomplishment. "As long as you are second in the league," he said, "I am ready to sign for the next 20 years."

And yet, something tells me Kroenke will not be rush-messengering that new 20-year contract to a guy who wears a "We're No. 2!" foam finger. When the American billionaire completed his takeover of Arsenal, he made sure to say that the team had a "brilliant" manager -- and it's easy to see why he would be attracted to the pennywise Frenchman and inspired spotter of skilled youth players. Like Wenger, who stubbornly resisted bringing in battle-tested reinforcements during the transfer window, even though he acknowledged that his young Gunners could benefit from an upgrade in goal and central defense, Kroenke prefers the American teams he owns to develop its own talent rather than spending heavily on established marquee stars.

An article in The Denver Post about his Colorado Avalanche neatly sums up his philosophy: "Colorado's off-season strategy was to continue to show unrelenting faith-- to the point of organizational arrogance -- in its ability to spot and nurture young talent. Why make major (i.e. expensive) moves when, if left alone, the young core eventually could lead this franchise back among the NHL's elite?"

Arsenal, of course, has been a member of the EPL's elite since Wenger took over as manager 15 years ago. But it remains to be seen whether Kroenke has the patience to put up with many more second-place finishes, or, after the next one, he will simply do his best Dalglish impression and tell Wenger to piss off.

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."