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Friday, Nov. 5, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Robben could leave Man United ruing day it passed on him


LONDON -- The Premiership has a new star.

Christopher Davies

Rarely can a player have made such a significant impact as Chelsea's Arjen Robben who, after only four appearances following an ankle injury-delayed debut, is already being talked about as a Stamford Bridge great.

Robben, who can play either on the wing or in attack, combines effectiveness with excitement, a player who oozes speed, subtlety and style. The goal he scored against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday, when he completed his first full game for Chelsea was of the highest class, a clinical finish after a delicate one-two with Damien Duff.

A penny for Sir Alex Ferguson's thoughts on the Dutch international would be well spent because last year Robben seemed set to sign for Manchester United and even trained with them.

But United was unable-or unwilling -- to pay PSV Eindhoven's asking price of £12 million which was loose change to Chelsea benefactor Roman Abramovich. Interestingly, the Chelsea deal was brokered by chief executive Peter Kenyon who had left a similar post at Old Trafford to join Team Abramovich.

Midway through last season when Claudio Ranieri was still manager Robben signed a pre-contract to join Chelsea after Euro 2004.

"Harry van Raaij, the PSV chairman said: "The point with Manchester United was they offered a certain sum of money but then they came back and that sum had been halved.

"Instead I made the transaction with my friend Peter Kenyon with whom I had dealt in the transfers of Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy [to United]. That made things easier."

Being beaten to a player they wanted so much by an ex-employee would only have rubbed salt in United wounds, because Kenyon left Old Trafford under a cloud, having to be on "gardening leave" while he served his notice period before eventually joining Chelsea.

Blues striker Mateja Kezman who played alongside Robben at PSV believes Arjen (pronounced Iron) is already one of the best players in Europe.

The Serbia international said: "He's just 20 years old and has a fantastic future but it's important to get a good start. We know each other very well and it's great for Chelsea that he's fit.

"He's dangerous with every touch of the ball and no opponent can keep him away from the goal whether it's a free-kick, an assist or a goal. He's one of the best players in Europe at the moment -- strong, quick and has two good feet, which means he can go inside or outside the opponent.

"I think he has everything that a top player needs and he can beat players with one touch of the ball. Chelsea must hope that he stays fit. Everything seems very easy to him but he works very hard.

"The best thing about him is his mentality, he's always the last person to leave the training ground."

Robben, not yet 100 percent match fit, believes he is getting stronger with every game and is clearly happy with his decision to join Chelsea instead of United.

He said: "It has been very difficult while I was out, especially the first 2 1/2 months. You come to a new club and you want to play for them. It was tough.

"Moscow was my first 90 minutes since I got injured and I am now feeling stronger and stronger. I am getting into the rhythm. It was important to score my first goal for the club."

TWO WEEKS AGO Arsenal was unbeatable. Now it is struggling to draw games. Arsenal has won only one of its last five games and that victory came in the Carling Cup when a reserve side beat Manchester City 2-1.

Arsenal has not recovered from the 2-0 defeat at Manchester United which ended the Gunners' 49-game league unbeaten run. Since then, Arsenal has surrendered the lead in three games in three different competitions.

When you are top of the Premiership and still fancied to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, it can hardly be a crisis even if there is obvious concern at the way the Gunners have failed to build on -- or even keep -- the lead in recent games.

"If we panic, then the whole of Europe should be panicking," said Arsene Wenger. "In a season, you go through periods like this and we have to show we are mentally strong."

For all of Arsenal's free-flowing, attacking style, it lacks the killer instinct to beat teams after taking the lead which, as it has discovered, leaves it vulnerable.

At times, Arsenal gives the impression of only wanting to score breathtaking goals, too often over-elaborate, when one decisive pass could have been more effective.

Perhaps Arsenal's main weakness is in defense, especially from set-pieces, and though Wenger refuses to criticize Jens Lehmann the goalkeeper is the Gunners' weakest link.

Where, for example, Chelsea's Petr Cech inspires confidence with his sheer presence, when the ball goes into the Arsenal goalmouth the worry beads are out at Highbury.

Will Lehmann come for the ball?

Will he get it?

Arsenal can say it won the Premiership with Lehmann so he can't be that bad, but he is not a goalkeeper of top European pedigree and though there may be few truly classy custodians around Wenger has managed to find gems in just about every other position.

Patrick Vieira remains upbeat during the current blip believing it is only a matter of time before cream once again rises to the top.

The Arsenal captain said: "We are not worried at all because we know how good we are and we just have to show it.

"We know what we can do, we know we can beat any team. Of course we need to do more to win games, but there is no pressure on ourselves.

"We are going to start winning games as a team. There is no doubt about it. We did it before, we know we can do it. It is a question of time and a question of desire but there is no doubt about the quality of the team."

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


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