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27 Feb 2004 00:00
As if Arsenal did not have enough to enjoy from their perch at the top of the Premiership, they were given three further reasons to celebrate this week. No sooner had the club confirmed that the funding is in place to enable their new stadium to be built than Arsène Wenger announced he will extend his contract.
The French manager, whose deal runs out at the end of next season, committed himself only to a one-year extension, taking him up to 2006, when Arsenal leave Highbury.
Wenger spoke of how ‘exciting” it would be to lead out the team at their new home and said he would not ‘run away” from the £357-million project.
On Tuesday night they showed their delight on the field, beating Celta Vigo — although Wenger will know better than to think all was perfect in Galicia.
The two goals Arsenal conceded from set pieces, and their defending in general, suggested they will need to tighten up before they can be considered serious challengers for this crown. Those errors also ought to ensure that Arsenal take nothing for granted in the return in a fortnight.
But the Premiership leaders had enough going forward to compensate for their deficiencies, and it would be a shock if they did not progress. With away goals counting double, Celta need to score at least twice, and few would envisage Arsenal failing to find the net at Highbury.
Arsenal’s second and third goals here were excellent, displaying the mix of individual talent and team play that makes them such a potent force. The first of those was a magnificent individual effort from the ever improving Edu — who also claimed the opening goal — and the winner was swept in 11 minutes from the end by Robert Pires after a fine combination with Thierry Henry.
Victory slightly flattered Arsenal but they will cherish a first win in Spain under Wenger after five successive defeats.
With Celta working hard to close them down quickly, Arsenal did not find anything like their usual flow and sharpness going forward until the second half. They were grateful that Alexander Mostovoi struck the bar at 1-1 early in the second half.
Arsenal may have the attacking potential to become European champions but they need to eliminate their defensive frailties. If they progress they will face tougher opponents than Celta, who lie 16th in La Liga. Give away two goals to teams such as Milan and Juventus and there is less likely to be a way back.
Edu again came to the fore after his winner at Chelsea last weekend. On recent form he will surely hold his place when Gilberto Silva returns from injury.
Having scrambled in Arsenal’s opener via a deflection, the Brazilian scored a goal that will live long in the memory. There didn’t seem anything on when he picked up possession outside the penalty area but he beat three Celta players before curling a shot into the top corner from outside the box with his weaker right foot.
‘I think he wanted to find a partner first and he couldn’t find anyone so he had no option other than to score with his right foot,” Wenger said with a smile.
‘He has improved every year and recently has become a very important player for us.”
That had also been illustrated when Arsenal first took the lead. Edu won a header from Pires’s free-kick, then found the net with some help from Eduardo Berizzo. Celta’s goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero ended up with a broken nose after his face struck Edu’s knee as he attempted to gather the ball.
Celta set out to show that though he was bloodied, they were unbowed. It did not take them long to respond. The other Edu, a Brazilian playing for Celta, headed the equaliser, beating Patrick Vieira to a header after the former Arsenal full-back Silvinho sent over a free-kick from the left.
Poor defending at a corner led to Celta’s second goal, with José Ignacio scoring from close range.
But it will surely need an improvement for Arsenal to do as well as they would like in Europe — even before their move to Ashburton Grove.
Arsenal’s announcement that they have secured the £260-million loan they need to finance the stadium is not a surprise but it will increase the feelgood factor at the club.
Arsenal regard Ashburton Grove as vital in establishing them as one of Europe’s most powerful clubs. The increased capacity from 8 000 to 60 000 will bolster finances, as will more extensive corporate facilities. Wenger said the move could take Arsenal on to ‘the next level”.
He was so upbeat he offered a withering response when told that Barcelona had restated their interest in Thierry Henry: ‘I want to buy Buckingham Palace but ...” —
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