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Friday, Dec. 3, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Gunners have gone from invincible to mortal in just over a month


LONDON -- On the face of it two defeats in your last 56 Premiership games hardly seems reason for a crisis.

Christopher Davies

Yet in the wake of what is becoming their traditional Black November, Arsenal has slipped from the Invincibles to the Ineffectives with three wins in its last nine Premiership and Champions League games.

From looking unbeatable the Gunners are now wondering where their next win is coming from (the League Cup, where what amounts to the youth team has been selected is an exception).

Arsenal is second in the League and no Premiership player has scored more goals than Thierry Henry -- 14 -- plus nine assists.

So where has it all gone wrong for Arsenal?

November, for reasons that are difficult to fathom, has always been its worst month as 11 defeats in 35 games during Arsene Wenger's tenure suggests.

The loss of its 49-game unbeaten Premiership run at Manchester United last month had a deeper psychological effect than expected.

Remarkably, Arsenal, which had almost forgotten what it was like to lose a League match, lost its confidence and has developed a habit of failing to hold on to a lead -- in fact, on nine occasions in the past two months the champions have surrendered their advantage, too often to goals from set-pieces.

Arsenal's strength has been more in attack than defense and the absence of Sol Campbell recently underlined, if it was necessary, how inadequate a replacement Pascal Cygan is at center-half.

Jens Lehmann is a good shot-stopper but the German goalkeeper does not inspire confidence in the defense. He can be indecisive, coming but failing to collect or clear the ball -- in contrast Chelsea's Petr Cech has been almost faultless as the Blues overtook Arsenal at the top of the Premiership.

Last Sunday, Arsenal lost 2-1 at Liverpool, Neil Mellor scoring a wonder goal to clinch victory for the home side in the second minute of stoppage time.

Arsenal was seconds away from a creditable 1-1 away draw but did not deal with a long clearance downfield by goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and Mellor thumped the ball home from 25 meters out.

Even more troubling for Arsenal, was the revelation by Freddie Ljungberg that there was an inquest in the locker room at halftime -- "we were not going into the battles 100 percent," said the Swede, perhaps the most damning of all criticisms.

Patrick Vieira, who came close to joining Real Madrid after Euro 2004, has not been the influence of recent seasons, while Robert Pires looks superb one week and poor the next.

The suspicion is that Pires was one player in Ljungberg's mind when he spoke out.

The French forward has never been the strongest of tacklers, his marvelous touch and vision in attack more than compensating for this.

But at Liverpool he jumped out of one or two tackles which sent out a positive message to the opposition.

Arsenal is clearly missing Gilberto and Edu, their two Brazilian defensive midfielders who are out with long-term injuries.

Seventeen-year-old Cesc Fabregas has played alongside Vieira in the center of midfield, but it is asking a lot of someone so young to consistently produce the goods at the highest level.

Vieira is suspended from next week's Champions League tie against Rosenborg at Highbury, which Arsenal must win to guarantee its progress to the knockout stages.

The France captain will also miss the Dec. 12 showdown with Chelsea after collecting his fifth caution of the season at Liverpool -- this could mean the heart of Arsenal's midfield will be Fabregas (17) and Mathieu Flamini (20) the latter has yet to start a League or European game.

Lauren, too, is banned for the visit of Rosenborg and there is no natural replacement for the Cameroonian at right-back.

There is no doubt Arsenal has some of the finest young talent of any Premiership club, but the next generation of Gunners are still a couple of years away from being ready for regular appearances on the bigger stage.

In comparison, Chelsea has a first-team squad of 24 brimming with experience -- its 'second string' team that beat Fulham 2-1 in the League Cup last Tuesday had 10 full internationals in the starting team, plus five more on the bench.

Wenger, who has brought some of the best players in the world to Highbury over the past eight years, is a football romantic, preferring the beautiful game with attack the best form of defense.

While Wenger will never compromise his football philosophies, Arsenal needs to plug some alarming holes at the back and from looking something of a formality a few weeks ago, Saturday's visit by Birmingham is suddenly a test of the Gunners' resolve.

Most Premiership clubs would love to be in the 'crisis' situation of Arsenal but the next two weeks will be crucial to their season.

Failure to advance from the group stage of the Champions League would be a huge blow to confidence -- and its coffers -- while defeat at Chelsea would damage Arsenal's Premiership hopes and confidence even further.

After their Black November Arsenal will be wishing for a White Christmas -- starting with December's opening Premiership fixture against Birmingham.

THERE IS NO DOUBT who the least popular player in the Premiership is.

A straw poll would surely see El Hadji Diouf win by a landslide with other candidates such as Newcastle's Craig Bellamy barely gaining a vote.

Diouf has become a serial spitter. There are many nasty habits in football but none worse, surely, than giving opponents the sort of mouthful the Senegal international has made into the most ignominious of art forms.

Last Saturday, he left Arjan de Zeeuw with spittle on his face and one can only marvel at how the Portsmouth captain did not react to Diouf's latest indiscretion.

Bolton fined the forward two weeks' wages, around £60,000, while the Football Association handed him a three-game ban.

Had they been able to suspended Diouf for 13 matches the F.A. would have won public acclaim.

Diouf arrived in English football when Liverpool, managed by Gerard Houllier at the time, paid Lens £11 million after the 2002 World Cup finals, when he set up the only goal as Senegal shocked holder France with a 1-0 opening game win.

Having made a name for being a non-scoring forward, Diouf -- rarely can so much have been paid for so little -- hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in March 2003 when he was caught on television spitting toward Celtic fans during the 1-1 UEFA Cup quarterfinal draw at Parkhead.

Diouf was fined two weeks' wages by Liverpool over the Parkhead incident, banned for two games by UEFA and, after pleading guilty, at Glasgow Sheriff Court to assault under provocation by spitting on a Celtic supporter was fined a further £5,000.

Having fallen out of favor at Liverpool, Diouf signed with Bolton on a yearlong loan deal in August but old habits, it seems, die hard.

Last month Diouf was accused of spitting at a fan during Bolton's 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough, though there was insufficient evidence for the matter to be taken further.

Last Saturday, Diouf's vile act was captured by television and the subsequent fine meant the Senegalese had paid out around £125,000 for two acts of spitting.

If you think it can't get any worse, Diouf also has a reputation for being one of the best/worst (whichever way you look at it) divers in the Premiership. There are not enough spin doctors in the world to change his image.

There has been talk of counseling but Bolton is 'dealing with the problem internally.'

Good luck to Bolton.

Spitting was made a separate offense in the laws of the game when AIDS became a growing concern. While not suggesting Diouf is HIV positive, it may be only a matter of time before an opponent is infected in such a manner.

Spitting at another player or a spectator is cowardly, filthy and potentially dangerous -- when Diouf returns from suspension he will be booed at every ground each time he touches the ball.

He can have no complaints.

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


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