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It is easy to mock trophy-drought at Arsenal, but 17 seasons of Champions League is no joke

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LONDON - Yet again this season, especially if it fails to win the FA Cup final on May 17, Arsenal's report card will read: "Could have done better."

But one could also say that about any of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League, with the exception of the champion. What separates Arsenal from others is unfailing consistency: Under manager Arsene Wenger, the north London club always and without exception competes at the business end of soccer's toughest league.

Manchester United's tumble into post-Alex Ferguson mediocrity this season leaves Arsenal as the only Premier League club never to have finished lower than fourth since Wenger took charge in October 1996.

This weekend, with a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion and fifth-place Everton's loss to Manchester City, Arsenal again guaranteed a top-four finish to qualify for next season's Champions League. This is the 17th consecutive year that Wenger has secured a much sought-after spot for his team in that fabulously lucrative European competition.

In recent years, that consistency has been easy to mock as a rubber trophy, a poor ersatz for Arsenal's failure to get its hands on the real thing. Beating Hull at Wembley on May 17 would end a trophy drought that stretches back to Arsenal's last FA Cup win of 2005.

But 17 successive years of qualifying for the Champions League is no joke. In the previous five seasons alone, The Union of European Football Associations paid a total of 150 million euros (more than $200 million at today's rates) to Arsenal for taking part in the competition and will pay roughly 30 million euros ($40 million) again this season for the club's run to the last 16, where it lost to reigning champion Bayern Munich.

Because it is the competition top players want to make their mark in, the Champions League gives Wenger a carrot to dangle when he shops for recruits this summer. The finance and prestige of consistently being in that competition have helped Arsenal keep in a tough past decade.

With Arsenal investing in the construction of its new Emirates Stadium, Wenger had to endure leaner times while billionaire owners at Chelsea and then Manchester City bankrolled on-field success and battled at the very top with Ferguson at Manchester United, England's wealthiest club. From 1998-05, Arsenal always finished either first — winning three times — or second in the league. Since then it has been pushed down to third or fourth.

Arsenal lifting the FA Cup will make this season feel more half-full than half-empty for fans. Optimists among them will be forgiven for thinking Arsenal should finish higher than fourth next season and perhaps even that the club has turned a corner.

In its old 38,000-seat Highbury Stadium, Arsenal wasn't earning anything close to what Manchester United was making on match days at Old Trafford. But the 60,000-seat Emirates Stadium has narrowed that revenue gap since Arsenal moved there in 2006.

Wenger's purchase of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid for a club-record 50 million euros ($66 million) at the start of this season shows Arsenal has money to spend. The German national team midfielder's second season should be better than this first of adaptation, where he dazzled with fancy footwork and passing but also at times looked like he could and should give more.

With Ozil's creativity unlocking defences and Aaron Ramsey having by far his best Arsenal season, supplying 13 goals in 28 games from midfield before he got injured, Arsenal led the league for most of the season, from September to February. That run suggests Arsenal should again be a title contender next season.

With some glaring exceptions, Arsenal was also more convincing in defence. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will win the EPL's golden gloves award if he gets a league-leading 17th shutout in Arsenal's last match at Norwich on Sunday.

Arsenal also scored the perfect goal, against Norwich at the Emirates last October, with Jack Wilshere's volley finishing an attack of one-touch passing that could stand as a monument to Wenger's era and favoured playing style.

But not signing another forward to back up Olivier Giroud, plus injuries to Theo Walcott, Ramsey and Wilshere, left Arsenal short of goals. Six away defeats — among them lopsided losses at Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0) — doomed Arsenal's title challenge. At the Emirates, the Gunners lost just once.

Which all left Wenger ruing what might have been, the 10 or so dropped points that could have made Arsenal champion for the first time since 2004.

"I'm happy with the attitude and the behaviour and the consistency of my players. I'm frustrated as well because we are 120 days top of the league and when you look today it's very tight," he said Sunday after leading his players on a season's farewell lap of honour at the Emirates.

"The regret as well is at the most important point of the season we had too many players out, many players who have only played between five and 15 games and that's where we want to improve, of course, for next season."

Still, fourth to first is a giant leap. And the competition, with Liverpool revitalized and Chelsea, City and United enjoying plenty of resources, will again be so tough next season that even finishing fourth is not to be sniffed at.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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