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Wenger to end 22-year Arsenal stay

‘UNTOUCHABLE’:The 68-year-old took charge in 1996 with Arsenal in the doldrums, but led the club to three Premier League titles and a record-breaking seven FA Cup triumphs

AFP, LONDON

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger greets fans during an English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Sunderland in London on Feb. 20, 2010.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Arsenal great Thierry Henry hailed Arsene Wenger’s legacy as “untouchable” despite struggles in recent years as the manager on Friday announced that he was stepping down after 22 years at the helm of the Premier League club.

The 68-year-old arrived at Arsenal in 1996 a relative unknown, but leaves widely hailed as the greatest manager in the club’s history following three Premier League titles and a record-breaking seven Football Association (FA) Cup triumphs.

Wenger, who completed the Premier League and FA Cup double in his first full season in England, was hailed as an innovator in his early years and his spiky clashes with former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson became the stuff of legend.

Yet, despite cup success in recent years, fans have become increasingly frustrated by the north London club’s inability to challenge the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea for the Premier League title and a failure to reach the sharp end of the Champions League.

“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season,” Wenger said in a statement posted on the club’s Web site. “I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years.”

Wenger arrived at Emirates Stadium with Ferguson’s United at the peak of their powers, but immediately threw down the gauntlet, winning the Premier League and FA Cup double in 1998, before repeating the feat four years later.

However, perhaps the most remarkable achievement of his long reign was going through a full league season unbeaten in 2003-2004, with his “Invincibles” playing a captivating brand of flowing soccer.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

After an incredible 19 successive years in the Champions League, Arsenal, in sixth place in the Premier League, could miss out for the second consecutive year after a disappointing league campaign.

Their only realistic chance of qualifying for next season is by winning the second-tier Europa League — the Gunners face Spanish giants Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals — and Wenger has urged the fans to get behind the club.

Arsenal’s all-time record goal-scorer Henry said Wenger’s recent lack of success in the Premier League should not tarnish his legacy.

“Recently, people were always confusing what he is doing at the minute and his legacy,” Henry said. “Once you announce you are leaving, people are going to talk about your legacy and his legacy is untouchable.”

“Let’s not get lost in celebrating the end of his era,” he added. “The team has to win the Europa League, it would be an amazing achievement and Arsene never won in Europe before so it would be a great way to give him a good exit.”

Ferguson, who retired in 2013, had warm words for his former adversary, saying he was “proud to have been a rival, colleague and friend” and hailing him as one of the greatest Premier League managers.

Current United manager and former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, with whom Wenger has had repeated run-ins, said he hoped the Frenchman he once labelled a “specialist in failure” would stay in soccer.

Arsenal’s majority shareholder Stan Kroenke paid tribute to a man of “unparalleled class,” with the club saying a successor would be found “as soon as possible.”

‘NO REPLACEMENT’

Nevertheless, Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis said on Friday: “We are not going to find a replacement for Arsene Wenger for a variety of reasons.”

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