Arsenal's 25-year run in European competition on the line

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Arsenal's manager Mikel Arteta gestures during an English Premier League soccer match between Sheffield United and Arsenal at the Bramall Lane stadium in Sheffield, England, Sunday, April 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Tim Keeton, Pool)

So much for Arsenal being one of the elite soccer clubs in Europe.

Three weeks after being among the instigators of the controversially closed-off and ultimately ill-fated Super League, the English team is facing the ignominy of being shut out of continental competition for the first time in 25 years.

A failure to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Villarreal in the Europa League semifinals on Thursday would end Arsenal’s quarter-century run of participating in either the Champions League or UEFA’s secondary club competitions.

Such a degrading of status would be ironic, considering the planned Super League — devised and then aborted within a chaotic 48-hour period last month — would have positioned Arsenal as one of 12 elite teams in the European game.

The significance of the match against Villarreal, likely to be played against the backdrop of more fan protests against Arsenal’s American ownership for its involvement in the Super League project, isn’t lost on Mikel Arteta.

“It is a big moment,” the Arsenal manager said. “Not for me but for the club, for everything that has happened in the last two years, in the last months, and for all the instability that we have been hit with for many different reasons.

“I think it will be really important, and a big step forward, if we are able to be in that final and have the opportunity to win that trophy.”

It’s not just Arteta’s future that could be on the line on Thursday. Arsenal’s ability to attract players for next season, and to retain the services of its own best players, might hinge on winning the Europa League and gaining the bonus prize of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.