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Sunday, April 9, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

New generation has Arsenal dreaming


LONDON -- From The Invincibales of England to The Unbeatables and Impenetrables of Europe, the Gunners continued their march toward the Champions League final with the confidence and style of a team that reflects its manager's football philosophy.

Christopher Davies

Many observers had questioned Arsene Wenger's unshakable belief in Arsenal's young players, but the 0-0 draw in Turin against the runaway Italian League leader was further proof that once again the Frenchman got it right. The new generation of Arsenal was simply too good for the old guard of Juventus with Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini, Philippe Senderos, Cesc Fabregas and Jose Antonio Reyes showing the sort of pace and penetration the Italian champions-elect could not match.

Villarreal, the upstart from Spain in its first season of Champions League football, stands between Arsenal and a place in the final next month.

While all of Villarreal's previous opponents thanked their lucky stars when they were paired with the team nicknamed the Yellow Submarine, only to be torpedoed out of the competition, Arsenal would still rather face Manuel Pellegrini's superbly coached side than either Barcelona or AC Milan, the two European heavyweights who must slug it out in the other semifinal.

When Arsenal went on a record-breaking 49-game unbeaten Premiership record a couple of seasons ago it underperformed in the Champions League. The reverse has been the case this time round with outstanding European performances amid inconsistent domestic displays.

In Turin, Arsenal set a Champions League record of eight consecutive clean sheets, a remarkable landmark all the more meritorious as its back-four has been shuffled around because of injuries to Lauren, Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, first-choice defenders at the start of the season but uncertain of winning back their place when fitness permits selection.

Chelsea is odds-on to win the Premiership, but any neutral would much rather pay to see Wenger's wonderful team than Jose Mourinho's effective but methodical side.

The prospect of an Arsenal versus Barcelona final is almost too good to be true, but let us pray the football gods smile on the Champions League. The mouthwatering possibility of seeing Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho, the two most outrageously skilled players on the planet, going head-to-head in Paris is one that will bring a tingle to any lover of football.

Henry has said he will let Arsenal know whether he will sign a new contract before he leaves for World Cup duty. The France international maintains football not finance will dictate his decision, so on that basis Arsenal can be confident that Henry will pledge his future to the club he loves so much.

Right now it is difficult to see who could offer Henry more, not least with Arsenal moving to its new state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium next season. If Arsenal versus Barcelona is the dream final then Gunners fans have the ultimate dream -- that is, Arsenal winning the Champions League, qualifying automatically for next season's campaign and finishing fifth in the Premiership, which would relegate rival Tottenham to the UEFA Cup if it ends up in fourth place as national associations can have no more that four entries.

Oh, and the day after the Gunners' final success, Henry announces he is staying.

Dreams can come true -- can't they?

* * *

ACCORDING to one report Chelsea captain John Terry had a word with Didier Drogba about the striker's diving and increasing habit of sneaky handballs, some spotted by match officials, some not. Terry felt such unsporting acts were contributing toward Chelsea being by a distance the least popular club in the Premiership.

It would also be welcome to know that Terry said something to William Gallas about his X-rated stamp on Fulham's Heigur Helguson last month, one of the nastiest challenges seen this season, and it was probably more by luck than judgment the striker did not sustain a broken leg.

But English football is obsessed by diving and cheating at the moment -- to the extent stamps and two-footed tackles that place an opponent's safety seriously at risk are almost being overlooked. A player who dives is likely to be criticized far more than one who dives in feet first with all studs showing.

While there is no place for cheating in any sport, football's priority should always be protecting players. Nobody ever sustained a broken leg or fractured cheekbone because an opponent fell over too easily.

Two newspapers have "dive watch" campaigns worthy in their own way. But "violence watch" would serve the game better. Ask Helguson if he was more bothered about Drogba's handball, which was spotted, during the game against Chelsea at Craven Cottage or the vicious stamp on his leg by Gallas. In fact, you would not need to ask because the answer is obvious.

* * *

FOR CENTURIES Gretna Green, a small town just over the Scottish border, was famous because young couples used to elope there to be married at 16 when English law did not allow them to marry until they were 18 without their parents' consent.

An unlikely marriage -- between multi-millionaire Brooks Mileson and Rowan Alexander three years ago -- has helped put Gretna, population 2,705 at the last census in 2000, on the map for different reasons. Gretna FC was scrambling around in the English non-league season before Mileson, 58, who has had two heart attacks, lost a kidney, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and smokes 100 cigarettes a day, decided to buy into a dream.

The eccentric with the ponytail has helped write an unlikely fairy tale because next season Gretna is set to play in the UEFA Cup after reaching the Scottish Cup final, where it will play Hearts, the Edinburgh club almost guaranteed to be in the Champions League in 2006-07.

Last season Gretna won the Scottish third division, and it has already guaranteed the second division trophy. It is the smallest club to qualify for a senior cup final in Britain and did so within four years of joining the Scottish League.

While not quite the Roman Abramovich of Scotland, Mileson, who was born in the northeast of England, has ensured money is no object at Gretna, whose players are paid around £1,500 ($2,600) each per week, £1,000 above the average in the Scottish second division.

Alexander describes his first meeting with Mileson as "seeing this scruffy looking man with a ponytail and (cigarette) in his mouth, and I thought 'Jesus, who is this?' "

The "this" is unconventional to say the least. At home games, where attendances have risen from under 100 to 2,000, Mileson stands with the fans while for away matches, the managing director insists on paying for his own tickets. Scotland's recently introduced ban on smoking in public places means Mileson now smokes "more when I can to make up for the times I can't."

During the semifinal win over Dundee, Mileson was given a plastic cigarette.

"You are supposed to suck it but I ended up chewing it," he said.

Gretna had 5,000 supporters -- double their population -- at Hampden Park for the semifinal.

"For all the doubting Thomases out there, Gretna have arrived," said Mileson. "It shows we mean business, and people had better take notice of us, because we are not stopping now.

"Gretna in Europe? It just gets dafter, doesn't it? I couldn't have written this story -- and I'm in it."

When Gretna plays Hearts in the Scottish Cup final on May 13, any couples getting married in the small Dumfries and Galloway town that day would be advised to take their own witnesses.

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


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