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Saturday, Sept. 29, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger proves again he is one of top managers in world


LONDON — Is Arsene Wenger the best coach in the world?

Christopher Davies

If the yardstick is winning the Champions League then no.

If running a club that with a brilliant sales technique, possessing the best eye in Europe for spotting young talent and creating several teams who play breathtaking attacking football, then Wenger has a justifiable claim.

Arsenal is atop the Premier League despite — or may be because of — the sale of Thierry Henry to Barcelona. Wenger said Arsenal is not missing its all-time record goal scorer, and confirmed his plan to overcome the loss of the Frenchman is working "exactly" as he hoped.

The Gunners have won nine of their 10 games this season, scoring 25 goals. Significantly, nine different players have been on the score sheet.

Wenger said: "We lost a big player so we will be missing something individually. We had to try to compensate for this by letting young players blossom, letting them take the initiative and sharing the responsibility out a bit more.

"Before the focus was purely on one man, so I hoped his big loss could be made up for by sharing out the work.

"I've been looking to build a very young team and create a maturity so that these players are used to big games. To be honest, since the start of the season that's exactly what I've seen."

Eyebrows were raised when Arsenal released Henry during the summer but we should have know better than to doubt the master. He has made selling players almost an art form.

When Patrick Vieira was sold to Juventus a couple of years ago, Wenger knew Cesc Fabregas was ready to take over for the former captain as the midfield enforcer.

Wenger also knew the next generation of Gunners had to be let off the leash without the imposing if brilliant shadow of Henry restricting them. There was an inevitable tendency for players to immediately look for Henry, but now they have the confidence to go it alone.

Listening to Wenger speak is more of an education than a press conference.

"You must love the game," he said. "You have to share with the players a certain way of seeing football. It's a strong experience to play football when you are a child and you can lose that as a professional. You have to get that back in the heart of the players.

"A child in Japan loves to kick the ball as much as a child in France. For me that is something magical.

"How can it be that you go all over the world and you give a kid a ball and he's happy?

"That explains the success of our game. I try to give that joy to my players in practice.

"I can't forgive anyone who doesn't love the game. There are two types of people in the game. There are those who want to achieve everything and others who want to live off football and don't love the game enough. They are no credit at all for our game.

"I don't compromise with people who don't love the game. When you have to pass, you pass, when you dribble, you dribble. But never let your ego get in the way of the game, that's very important."

The Arsenal board asked Wenger what he would do if he was given £100 million to spend. He replied that he would give it back.

"I only spend money if it is necessary," he said. "When you feel you have a good team you don't necessarily want to spend it. It's nice to have in an emergency. but you must spend it wisely."

He may or may not be the best coach but in many respects Wenger is unique.

* * * * *

RAFA BENITEZ has rotationitis. It is an obsession with rotating his team for inexplicable reasons with negative effects.

While any side with realistic hopes of winning its domestic title or the Champions League needs a strong squad, there is no need to change just for the sake of it.

The top teams in Spain, Italy and Germany always play their best XI in league and European games. Domestic cups are a chance for the fringe players, but when points and Champions League progress are at stake, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and the rest do not leave out key players.

Benitez left Fernando Torres out of the side that played Portsmouth and Birmingham in the last two Premier League games and Liverpool dropped four crucial points.

The record £20 million signing from Atletico Madrid was restored to the team for Tuesday's League Cup tie at Reading and scored a hat trick in the competition that Benitez rates at the bottom of his priorities.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

True, Liverpool has four top strikers in Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Peter Crouch and Andrei Veronin.

"I have four good strikers and I pick the ones I want," said Benitez. "I just think of what is best for the team."

But how can it be best for any team to leave out your best goal scorer for the most important games?

Benitez seems to be in a minority of one in what he thinks is best for the team, and while his record as a manager suggests he knows more about football than most of us, the Spaniard is a serial tinkler.

* * * * *

ENGLAND'S hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008, improved by home wins over Israel and Russia, have been hit.

Estonia comes to Wembley on Oct. 13 with the winner-takes-all-match against Russia in Moscow four days later.

Whatever side head coach Steve McClaren selects will take care of Estonia. However, England must play on Moscow's artificial turf without the strike force that buried Israel and Russia.

Emile Heskey has a foot injury, while Michael Owen's troublesome groin will sideline him for three weeks.

Owen Hargreaves has been injured since joining Manchester United from Bayern Munich, Frank Lampard is on the Chelsea injury, list while captain John Terry's form is of huge concern.

Victory over Estonia (as certain as anything can be in football), plus a point in Moscow and another draw at home to Croatia in the final tie will see England through.

On the other hand, if Russia wins its remaining ties — away to Israel and minnow Andorra, and defeats England in Moscow — England will be European Championship spectators next summer.

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


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