WILL there come a point when the kind words, envious glances and extravagant superlatives for the way Arsenal play football count for nothing?
The Gunners have won nothing but admiration since 2005 when Patrick Viera’s spot-kick brought Arsene Wenger victory over bitter rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup.
Yet, they arguably remain the team to be jealous of, where style does carry more weight than substance, where supporters are treated to the sort of free-flowing attacking football we all aspire to and where young players are encouraged to play with the freedom of expression by a manager who has a better eye for talent than any other in European football.
Arsene Wenger is the ideal Premier League manager. While the trophies may have dried up, Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League every year since 1998 with him at the helm and flourished financially as a result.
He is a chairman’s dream, buying young players cheaply before shaping many of them into world-class stars with a sell-on value which brings in millions of pounds in transfer fees.
This is a manager who paid £500,000 for Nicolas Anelka and sold him to Real Madrid for £22.3m two years later. More recently, Wenger brought in almost £50m this summer with the sale of Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City to no obvious detriment of a team which currently sits in second place in the table and has comfortably scored more goals this season than anyone else.
In many ways it is sad for the romantic in us all that they have not won anything, a drought which will stretch to five years by the time they have a chance to lift a trophy this season. But this is sport and, ultimately, it will always be about winners and losers.
Arsenal win more than they lose in the Premier League and in Europe, but when compared to Chelsea and Manchester United, they are losers. Winning things, they will say at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, will always be more important than how you try to win them.
Phil Bardsley has left the Manchester United school, but he will always be a former pupil and as much as he praises Arsenal’s young side, he can not look beyond the lack of silverware as a true barometer of success. “Everyone knows what sort of team they are,” said Bardsley, who is anticipating a frantic afternoon at the Stadium of Light.
“They are tremendous. No matter what team Arsene Wenger puts out, they are always an exciting team. They have closed the gap a bit, but they still have many young lads.
“Manchester United and Chelsea have pros in there that have been there and done it. Year after year they keep competing for the title.
“Arsenal, maybe next year, or the year after they could be right in there, but I think this year they have young lads who are still bedding in. I can’t look past Chelsea and United.”
They have been saying something similar at the Emirates Stadium for the last four seasons, although Wenger is convinced his youngsters have matured enough to win a prize this year.
Whether, as Bardsley suggests, they are strong enough yet to take the Premier League crown remains to be seen, although the full-back admitted there is still not a more daunting opponents to face as a defender. “I played against Arsenal on loan at Aston Villa and it was tough,” he said about an Arsenal side which will be without both Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner today. “Against the top boys your head is like a windscreen wiper because of the movement their players have got. It is mentally draining more than physically.
“Arsenal are a tremendous outfit and the way Arsene Wenger brings young players through is exceptional. We have to be on our game because no matter what type of team he puts out they are always capable of winning.
“He will put out a team which he thinks will get three points off us. As we have seen in the Carling Cup, he has brought young players in against Premier League opposition and they have turned them over comfortably. The young players who he brings in will do the job if they are called upon.”
Nevertheless, Sunderland have more than held their own against the top sides this season. They have already beaten Liverpool at home, drawn with Manchester United away and outplayed Tottenham in their last Premier League game despite a 2-0 defeat.
Bardsley added: "We have had time to recharge our batteries. We feel great. We don’t have a break now until February so there will be exciting times ahead.
"The top teams we have come up against this year, we have done well. Arsenal are a top team and our application and approach will have to be exactly the same again.
“If we show the same attitude as we have done against United and Liverpool we will do well again.
“It has been an up-and-down season so far, but we have made good progress. The manager has come in with Eric Black and brought in his own ideas about where this club should be going.
“It is going in the right direction and we always give 110%. We have done that so far – but we have got to show more consistency, even though we are heading where we want to be.
“We are all right when were have the ball, but when we haven’t got it that is where we have to improve and make it harder for teams. We have done well against the top teams and home, but we have to do it everywhere.”