By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - There have been some tough times for Arsenal since Arsene Wenger ended his long reign as manager in 2018 but there was always something to cling to for the fans, a glimmer of hope despite the nagging sense of decline.
A Europa League final against Chelsea in Unai Emery's one full season in charge and a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League suggested Arsenal were not too far behind.
Even last season when Arsenal finished eighth in the Premier League, they beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final, a result that vindicated the decision to sack Emery halfway through the campaign and recruit Mikel Arteta.
But after Thursday's demoralising Europa League semi-final exit against Villarreal turned the lights out on Arsenal's season, hope is a commodity in extremely short supply.
Arteta described the 2-1 aggregate defeat, after a listless 0-0 draw at the Emirates Stadium, as a devastating blow and his mood had not lightened the day after.
"Last night, one goal goes in and we are in the final and it's a different world," the Spaniard said. "But today that world doesn't look very nice."
He is not wrong.
Arsenal sit ninth in the Premier League and face the prospect of no European football for the first time in 25 years.
The long-running chorus of discontent against American owner Stan Kroenke grows louder with protests before Thursday night's semi-final.
Arsenal's squad lacks quality, depth and personality and too much responsibility is being placed on the young shoulders of gems such as Bukayo Saka who will doubtless be on the radar of the Premier League's top guns this summer.
Then there is the question of whether Arteta is the right man to pull Arsenal out of their downward spiral.
It looked a gamble when he left his role as Pep Guardiola's assistant at Manchester City to return to the club he once captained, but the FA Cup win over Chelsea appeared to have bought him the time needed to put his stamp on the club.
If that was a step in the right direction, the following nine months have seen Arsenal take several back.
The sight of Arteta being tactically outmanoeuvred by fellow Spaniard Emery, now in charge of Villarreal, over both legs of the Europa League semi-final, was described as "embarrassing" by former player Martin Keown.
Huge investment in the squad is required but with no European football to look forward to next season the list of elite players ready to move to the Emirates will not be long.
Arteta remains confident that in the likes of Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Kieran Tierney, Arsenal can be optimistic.
"It gives me a lot of confidence because they have shown what they can do," he said.
"But as well they need the right surroundings around for them to grow, without putting too much pressure on them."
To put Arsenal's grim situation into perspective, it is a sobering thought that two years ago when they lost to Chelsea in the Europa League final in Baku they finished only two points behind the Stamford Bridge club.
Two years down the line and Chelsea are in the Champions League final after outclassing Real Madrid in the semi-finals and look set to cement their position in the top-four.
Chelsea's bold move to sack club great Frank Lampard in January risked alienating the fans. But in German Thomas Tuchel they now have a manager who looks capable of making Chelsea genuine challengers to Manchester City in the coming seasons.
Arteta could yet prove to be the man to turn things round, but his immediate prospects look bleak.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)