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Saturday, Aug. 20, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger still confident Gunners can contend for Premier title


LONDON -- What is becoming an increasing bitter rivalry resumes at Stamford Bridge on Sunday when Premiership champion Chelsea play F.A. Cup winners Arsenal.

Christopher Davies

Two weeks ago Chelsea beat Arsenal in the Community Shield, but though the Gunners also stumbled against the Blues in the Champions League in 2004, Arsene Wenger's side has not lost to the nouveau riche from west London in the league since September 1995.

There is, understandably, resentment that Roman Abramovich's billions allows Chelsea to buy almost literally any player Jose Mourinho wishes, with Ghana midfielder Michael Essien, due to sign from Olympique Lyon for £26 million the latest big-money arrival at Stamford Bridge.

Essien brought Abramovich's investment in players over the last two years to almost £300 million.

In contrast, Arsenal has been weighed down by the cost of its new Emirates Stadium opening next season and has made only one significant summer signing in Belarussian forward Alexander Hleb, a £10 million transfer from VfB Stuttgart.

Wenger admitted he cannot replace captain Patrick Vieira who moved to Juventus "because there is no other Vieira."

The relationship between Wenger and Mourinho was strained by last season's "tapping up" scandal over Arsenal's Ashley Cole.

Chief executive Peter Kenyon did nothing to detract from the belief that Chelsea is an arrogant upstart when he declared: "The winner of the Premier League will come from a small bunch of one."

While Mourinho is still a relative newcomer to English football, Wenger will complete a milestone of 500 games in charge of Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

The Frenchman has won three titles and four F.A. Cups during his nine years in charge, but said: "It's 500 games already but I feel like I arrived at Highbury yesterday. I can't quite believe it."

His record of having finished in the top two of the Premiership every season in England is under threat with a revitalized Manchester United and European champions Liverpool.

"It was every year under threat," he said. "I can tell you that when we sold Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars (to Barcelona five years ago) it was as much under threat as it is now. What drives me on is that I see the quality of the players in training every day.

"I feel we have the level to compete for the title. After that, all the hype is against us as it's all for Chelsea. That is not a problem for me.

"Once you are on the pitch, either you make a good pass or a bad pass. No one in the stands can affect that. It's not about what people say, it's about what you do on the pitch. It's as simple as that."

A SIGNIFICANT percentage of the English media does not think Sven-Goran Eriksson is the right man to lead England.

The belief is that he is not worth his £3 million salary, while he is too conservative in terms of substitutions and personality. The joke is that when Denmark's fourth goal went in during the 4-1 defeat of England Eriksson was so angry he loosened his tie.

England's heaviest loss in 25 years saw knives being sharpened and an extra supply of vitriol on order among the scribes. Hell knoweth no fury like a football writer who has been given the ammunition to put the boot in on a less than favorite person.

In fairness to Eriksson, though England has a poor record in friendlies, it has yet to lose a qualification game while he has been in charge. Four years ago, a dreadful display in losing 2-0 at home to Holland was followed two weeks later by the stunning 5-1 win over Germany in Munich.

But there are defeats and defeats and in Copenhagen, England was as far from wonderful as can be with only Wayne Rooney rising above the general mire. The international inadequacies of goalkeeper David James, a second-half substitute who conceded all four goals, and Glen Johnson were painfully highlighted.

"I can promise you that the qualification games will not look like this," said Eriksson, conceding it would be almost impossible for England to play as badly again.

"I still have belief in these players but that doesn't take away the fact that we can't lose a friendly game like that."

Backup to first-choice goalkeeper Paul Robinson, James, who lost his place after a costly blunder in Vienna, has now become something of an international liability.

"I have always said that David James was very professional after the Austria game, working very hard and trying to come back," said the usually supportive Eriksson who realized he could not defend the indefensible. "But after what happened in this game, I don't want to talk about David James or whoever. The second half was a collective disaster.

"I suppose Glen Johnson will play games for Chelsea this season. Otherwise, they would have sold him. It's the same there. We all played very badly in the second half.

"When you are missing details like attitude, tactics, aggression, not running with the ball or keeping the shape, it became a complete disaster. I will not try to defend anything because almost everything was wrong in the second half."

England's next game is a World Cup qualifying match against Wales in Cardiff and Eriksson, in what one prays was a humorous rather than serious remark, said: "I hope the Welsh look at the tape only of the second half. Then their confidence will go up."

Gary Neville was a little dismissive of Denmark as he hoped the defeat would be a wakeup call for England as its bid to reach the World Cup finals reaches its climax.

"No one is trying to downplay what happened against Denmark," said the Manchester United fullback who went on to do just that. "The second-half performance in particular was not good enough, but freak results do happen sometimes.

"The Danish team is all right, but it is nothing special. If we played them when it really mattered, we would win. They have some good players and decent pace, but if we couldn't beat them in a competitive game we wouldn't deserve to be at the World Cup finals, anyway. In that situation, we might as well stay at home."

Though England should qualify for Germany by finishing at the top of Group Eight, it could come down to the home game against Poland in a winner-take-all shootout.

If England finished second it would go into the playoffs where it could face . . . Denmark.

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


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