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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2007


Counted out by many, Wenger has Gunners in fine form

LONDON — As Niklas Bendtner scored Arsenal's final goal in its 7-0 Champions League demolition of Slavia Prague last Tuesday, ITV commentator Peter Drury exclaimed: "It's perfect football."

Christopher Davies

Some may say there can never be perfection in any sport, but Arsenal did much to counter that argument as it produced Hollywood football against the hapless Czechs.

Arsenal has won 14 of its 15 matches this season and it is once again playing in a manner that should make everyone who can witness another wonderful Arsene Wenger team grateful they were not born in a different era.

"The same people who are saying we will win the European Cup were saying we would finish seventh in the Premier League," said Wenger, and those who doubted the Frenchman's managerial acumen should have known better.

Japanese supporters have firsthand knowledge of Wenger from his spell with Grampus Eight, but it is at Arsenal that the Frenchman has been able to implement his own brand of the beautiful game.

Unusually, the media was allowed to watch Arsenal train the day before the visit of Slavia, and it was breathtaking to watch the squad give a master class in pace and precision passing.

Arsenal's problem last season was the loss of points to lowly clubs and being outmuscled at places like Blackburn or Bolton. Wenger doesn't have a hard man in the Patrick Vieira or Martin Keown mold to call on now, but Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie combine to give a spine of strength, speed, subtlety and skill to the side.

Alexander Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Adebayor have continued to progress after a learning season last time round.

Theo Walcott's recent displays give confidence that the teenager will become a real force for Arsenal and England, but perhaps the biggest plus for the Gunners is that the loss of Thierry Henry to Barcelona during the summer has helped to improve the team overall.

Younger players do not have to instinctively look for the Frenchman when they are in possession, they can take more responsibility with Arsenal's 39 goals being spread among 12 players.

Arsenal travels to Anfield to play Liverpool on Sunday and the mood in the two camps could hardly be more contrasting, even though Rafa Benitez's team is unbeaten in the Premier League.

Liverpool's 2-1 defeat by Besiktas means the 2007 beaten finalists will have to win all three remaining Champions League ties to have any hope of remaining in the competition. The Reds have been conceding cheap goals with defending bordering on disbelief.

The knives are not quite out for Benitez but questions are being asked about his team selections and tactics. Leaving out striker Fernando Torres for two league games but playing him in the League Cup "to keep him fresh for the end of the season" seemed insane — you have to win games to be involved in the business end of things and to do that you need your best players.

In Turkey this week, Benitez chose two wingers, in Jermaine Pennant and Ryan Babel, when most believed a more conservative approach was needed against a side roared on by an amazingly vociferous and passionate crowd.

If there is a mini-crisis at Anfield, things are calmer these days at Chelsea, whose 2-0 victory over Schalke 04 was its fourth in succession under Avram Grant. The Israeli has at least got the Blues back to their winning ways after a stuttering start, while Jose Mourinho packed his special bags and left town.

Chelsea enjoyed some good fortune against the Germans, but under Grant there is a more attacking edge to their play with Joe Cole, Florent Malouda and serial sulker — but also serial goal scorer — Didier Drogba clearly enjoying their license to thrill.

Grant will never achieve the status Mourinho did, though neither will he gain the notoriety the Portuguese self-generated.

The suspicion remains that a more high-profile coach will be in charge of Chelsea next season, but in the meantime Grant has calmed the troubled waters at Stamford Bridge and there is nothing like a run of victories to make fans forget the previous hugely popular manager.

* * * * *

THE WORDS "popular" and "manager" have not been readily associated with Gary Megson this season. Megson achieved an ignominious double when the former Leicester manager was appointed to take over at Bolton on Thursday.

He was not wanted by either club's supporters.

A poll in the local Bolton newspaper showed only 12 of 700 votes in favor of Megson's arrival, while Leicester supporters were not impressed by the style of football the team played during his six weeks at the helm with the Championship club after 18 months out of management.

The appointment of Sammy Lee to succeed Sam Allardyce as Bolton manager this summer always seemed doomed to failure and so it proved.

Chairman Phil Gartside has hardly endeared himself to supporters by bringing in Megson while the manager's departure probably did Leicester chairman Milan Mandaric a favor.

Word has it that Mandaric had made a mistake by appointing Megson, booed by the crowd during the midweek home defeat by Sheffield United, in the first place.

"We feel Gary is the right man to take Bolton forward," said Gartside, who would have struggled to find a seconder among the Reebok Stadium faithful.

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

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