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Saturday, March 10, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Many questions facing Wenger and underachieving Gunners


LONDON -- In France Arsene Wenger was known as the Nearly Man.

Christopher Davies

A manager who has led Arsenal to three Premiership titles, four F.A. Cup successes and the Champions League final in 10 years can hardly be called a failure.

Yet the feeling is Wenger and Arsenal should still have achieved more, and three cup defeats in 11 days have seen a season that promised so much end with only third or fourth place in the Premiership to aim for.

Wenger's Arsenal squad is all speed and style.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea squad is more strength and solidarity.

Which side would most neutrals prefer to watch?

Arsenal.

Who wins the silverware? Chelsea.

For all its intricate one-touch football, subtlety and movement Arsenal does not punch its weight.

Sometimes it seems that scoring an "ordinary" goal is beneath it -- it has to be a goal of the month contender or nothing.

Chelsea was too powerful for a young Gunners team in the League Cup final and won 2-1.

Ditto Blackburn in the F.A. Cup, which triumphed 1-0.

Against PSV in the Champions League on Wednesday, Arsenal could only draw 1-1, losing 2-1 and to rub salt in the Gunners' wounds the decisive goal was scored by a player called Alex (how Sir Alex Ferguson would have smiled at that) who is on loan to the Dutch club from Chelsea.

Wenger pointed to Arsenal's injuries and fixture congestion, but it is nothing compared to Chelsea's, and the Blues march (occasionally limp) on in the Premiership, F.A. Cup and Champions League, with the League Cup already in their trophy cabinet.

Unlike Chelsea and Manchester United, Arsenal does not appear to be able to grind out results, perhaps playing ugly football but getting the job done.

Cesc Fabregas could develop into one of the world's best midfielders and Gilberto is both dedicated and experienced, but Arsenal still lacks a towering, commanding figure of authority in the middle as was provided by former captain Patrick Vieira.

At the back, it is vulnerable to high balls into the goal area, as was proved by the decisive headers conceded to Chelsea's Didier Drogba in the League Cup final and to Alex in the Champions League on Wednesday.

In attack Arsenal doesn't have a "fox in the box" who can pounce on half-chances.

Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie have been injured for long spells, Julio Baptista has sparkled mainly in the League Cup and may return to Real Madrid at the end of season, while Emmanuel Adebayor has not built on the potential shown by his match-winner at Manchester United in September.

"There are lots of positives but, of course, at the moment we are more focused on the negatives because in the last two weeks it has been horrendous for us," said Wenger. "But that's what a season can be like at a big club.

"This defeat is difficult to take and it's a massive disappointment. We feel it was a cruel night because we had chances to score the second goal. We could not take the chances we made in both halves. This was a repetition of the first leg."

A familiar tale of woe, and Wenger will need to make some tough decisions this summer to avoid becoming a Nearly Man in England.

Should he sell Henry to help rebuilding the team?

Does he give goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, 37 another contract?

Can Freddie Ljungberg offer any more?

Are Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb any more than squad players?

Arsenal fans love the football their team plays but it is not nearly enough too often.

* * * * *

THE PROBLEM with Ian Holloway is that the Plymouth Argyle manager is such a funny guy he will probably be remembered more for his humor than his coaching.

Plymouth hosts Watford Sunday in the F.A. Cup quarterfinals and the only Championship team left in the competition has an outstanding chance for another bumper pay day against one of the Premiership's big batallions.

The Pilgrims add a much needed touch of romance to a competition which has become dominated by the Premiership's elite.

Plymouth, 350 km from London on the Devon coast, is best known for Sir Francis Drake masterminding the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 -- according to popular legend he was playing bowls on Plymouth Hoe as the armada sailed up the English Channel.

The stakes may be significantly different at Home Park this weekend, though whatever the outcome it is the safest of bets that Holloway's one-liners will lighten the occasion.

Perhaps Hollway's best came when he was manager of Queens Park Rangers before moving to Plymouth last summer.

After one game he came out with the gem: "To put it in gentleman's terms, if you've been out for a night and you're looking for a young lady and you pull one, some weeks they're good looking and some weeks they're not the best.

"Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi. She weren't the best looking lady we ended up taking home, but she was very pleasant and very nice, so thanks very much, let's have a coffee"

Holloway speaks with an engaging Bristol burr and recalled the time when, as a teenager, he was faced with the dilemma of whether to sign with City or Rovers, whose representatives visited the family home on the same day.

He said: "Bristol City came in first and all they talked about was how brilliant I was gonna be and 'when you're 16 we'll give you this, and when you're 17 we'll give you that, and when you're 21 you'll play for us and you'll never have to buy another pair of boots Mr. Holloway. In fact, here is your size right now.'

"And out they go. And in come Bristol Rovers and all the fella says is 'you did all right today, you were quite fair. Now if you want to be a good player, son, you've got to want it more than the next fella and all we are guaranteeing you is you got to work hard, you got to be dedicated and it's down to you and it's down to you how good you can be. We know you might have a chance, but it's down to you son.'

"Now, who do you think I chose? I chose the people who told me the truth. I wasn't a big head, I knew what it was all about -- you gotta work hard and mold yourself into something."

Holloway opted for Rovers and eventually went on to manage them from 1996 until 2001, when he moved to Queens Park Rangers who he left under a cloud last February.

Chairman Gianni Paladini's version is: "Leicester rang us and asked for permission to speak to Ian Holloway. I rang Ian's agent and he told me they would like to be given permission to speak with Leicester as he was interested in the job.

"The way I see it if Ian Holloway was fully committed to QPR then why does he want to talk to Leicester? If you're happily married why would you go and look for another woman?"

Holloway assumed that as Paladini had informed his agent about Leicester's approach they were happy for him to have talks.

He was placed on gardening leave -- "if I'd known I'd have got a bigger garden," he joked -- for four months until he joined Plymouth.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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