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31 Oct 2003 00:00
An old Bill Tidy cartoon still raises a smile. The Oxfam truck has arrived in a scorched African desert carrying a load of red-and-white scarves.
‘I see Arsenal lost again,” sniffs a local.
The humour might be lost on the premiership, where Arsenal do not lose that often, and indeed have yet to be beaten this season. But in the champions league it is a different matter. Here Arsenal do lose again, and again and again.
Already Highbury’s interest in the present tournament is in steep decline. Last time out Arsène Wenger’s team suffered their second defeat in three matches, losing 2-1 at Dynamo Kiev having been beaten 3-0 at home by Internazionale.
Arsenal’s chances of reaching the knockout stage already look forlorn.
By early December, if not before, they will probably be able to devote all their attention to regaining the premiership title from Manchester United. Such a prospect would sustain, perhaps even stiffen, the interest in Arsenal’s season. For many of their fans the thought of upstaging United at home may be more delicious than outlasting them abroad.
Yet, if the Wenger era is to fulfil its destiny, surely Arsenal should have made a better fist of things in the champions league long before now. This is their sixth campaign and so far they have managed only a single quarterfinal appearance.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that Wenger’s best opportunity has come and gone. Last November, as Thierry Henry scored a hat-trick in the 3-1 win at Roma which announced Arsenal’s presence in the second stage, it really did look as if Wenger had cracked it. But his team cracked instead.
Vapid draws at home to Valencia, Ajax and Roma confirmed Arsenal’s chronic inability to punch their weight and their elimination coincided with a domestic collapse, which handed the premiership title back to United.
Now the defensive flaws accompanying that failure have caught up with Arsenal’s latest campaign in Europe. The two goals with which Maksim Shatskikh and Valentin Belkevich dispatched Arsenal may have been fine examples of the opportunist’s art but they still bore echoes of the way Inter won at Highbury a month earlier.
Wenger complained about the adverse media reaction to the Inter setback, saying it did not take into account the excellence of much of his team’s football. And it cannot be denied that in Kiev Arsenal, at times, played well.
There is, however, little point in outboxing opponents if you are consistently being floored by sucker punches. Arsenal’s attack may glitter but at the back, in Europe, opposing forwards are more likely to be dazzled by reflections from their glass jaw.
When he took over seven years ago, Wenger inherited a sound if ageing defensive unit backed by an experienced and reliable goalkeeper. Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn and David Seaman formed the English bedrock of a French revolution.
It was a team within a team. Adams commanded, Dixon, Keown and Winterburn obeyed and Seaman saved. In the present set-up one individual error is apt to kick the cornerstone away.
At home in the premiership Wenger would have settled for 10 points from a daunting run against United, Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea; the three wins following the rumpus at Old Trafford bore out his team’s character.
But there is no escaping the fact that in a league of champions, or near champions, Arsenal remain horizontal heavyweights. And it is in Europe that their true worth surely has to be judged. —
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