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Friday, May 14, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal one game away from setting new standard in England


LONDON -- Arsenal stands on the verge of what manager Arsene Wenger called "sporting immortality" with just Leicester blocking its path to the record books.

Christopher Davies

If Arsenal avoids defeat against already relegated Leicester on Saturday it will have gone the entire 2003-04 Premier League season undefeated.

The only other top flight English club to achieve such a feat was Preston in a 22-game season, in 1888-89.

Ajax and AC Milan have also won their league unbeaten in the modern era but Wenger believes it will never be done again in the Premiership.

Arsenal came close once before when George Graham's side lost once in 1990-91, but the blemish of that defeat by Chelsea is irremovable.

An unbeaten Arsenal team would be remembered in the same way as England's 1966 World Cup winning side, the Gunners' players forever etched in the memory for a one-off achievement of near impossibility.

Thirty seven down and one to go, Arsenal is almost limping toward the finishing line, mentally and physically drained by the demands of the past nine months.

It needs to raise its body and soul one last time at Highbury, where Leicester would love to take its place, if not in the history books,as the answer to the trivia question: "Who was the only team to beat Arsenal in 2003-04?"

"The players don't want to let it slip away," said Wenger. "We will just relax and then prepare for the game. We are at Highbury, the trophy is going to be awarded before the game and we will be really up for it.

"There is a nervousness before any big game, but we are used to being under pressure and the key is to prepare well."

Wenger realizes that the main danger facing his side is that everyone else will now virtually take it for granted that they will remain unbeaten.

"This game is like a final for us. But you can always lose a game, even against a team who are already relegated, so we must be focused. There are no regrets when you give everything, so we must be fully prepared to achieve that record."

Arsenal is aware that to be judged as a truly great team, it must also win back-to-back Premiership championships and conquer Europe. In the 12-year history of the Champions League, only one Premiership club, Manchester United, when it beat Bayern Munich in 1999, has reached the final.

England's UEFA Cup hopefuls this season were knocked out by Steaua Bucharest, Groclin and Genclerbirgli, hardly giants of the European game, which underlines the gap between the Premiership and the continent's premier club competitions.

The frustration for Arsenal, knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea in the quarterfinals, is that there is unlikely to be a better chance for it to win Europe's premier club competition than there was this season.

FC Porto and Monaco will contest the final in a non-vintage season for the Champions League and Arsenal cannot expect future semifinals to not include AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United or the other usual big-name European suspects.

However, some observers feel that going through a Premiership season undefeated is a harder task than winning the Champions League.

Maybe . . . but Arsenal would no doubt have taken the "easier" option.

ALAN SMITH was carried shoulder high by adoring Leeds fans after the last game at Elland Road this season, a 3-3 draw against Charlton.

Smith is a hero with the Leeds fans while journalists have poured praise on the striker for his commitment to the club's cause as it battled against relegation (unsuccessful) and administration (successful).

On the other hand, Mark Viduka is the big bad wolf who "doesn't care" about Leeds. which was "proved" by his unnecessary sending-off against Bolton two weeks ago.

When Leeds' relegation was confirmed Smith said: "I am not a first-division player and I have got an international career to think about.

"Hopefully the Leeds fans will understand that."

They seem to have, yet when West Ham was relegated a year ago and Jermaine Defoe said he wanted to leave, the striker was criticized for being disloyal and leaving a sinking ship.

Smith's contribution to Leeds, since his debut in November 1998, has been 38 goals in 171 Premiership games plus 44 yellow cards and five reds -- more cautions than goals.

Viduka, on the other hand, has scored 59 goals in his 130 games, collecting 18 cautions and two red cards. The Australian striker has not said he wants to leave Leeds.

So one player with a significantly inferior strike-rate but a vastly superior disciplinary record, and who has said he isn't hanging around in the first division, thank you, is hailed a hero.

The other, who has a goal average of just under one every other game, plus a much better disciplinary record and has not asked to leave, is perceived as disloyal.

PAUL SCHOLES should have been banned from the F.A. Cup final between Manchester United and Millwall on May 22.

During last Saturday's game against Chelsea, the United forward was rightly cautioned for diving by referee Steve Bennett, who later showed remarkable leniency when he did not send-off Scholes for a second yellow card offense when he clattered into Frank Lampard.

Bennett reached for his cards, but upon realizing it was Scholes and a sending-off would rule him out of the F.A. Cup final took no action.

Sir Alex Ferguson did, however, substituting Scholes for the player's Cup final welfare.

Perhaps the punishment would not have fit the crime, but it is not up to a referee to judge this, merely to enforce the laws of the game.

It was unfair to Chelsea, which should have been playing against 10 men and it is unfair to Millwall which: (a) must play against Scholes in the final and (b) will be without striker Danny Dichio, the striker suspended after being sent-off for violent conduct by a referee who did enforce the laws of the game.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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