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Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger won't compromise beliefs despite struggles


LONDON — If Arsenal loses to Manchester United on Saturday the Gunners can forget about winning the Premier League.

Christopher Davies

Defeat at Emirates Stadium would be Arsenal's fourth in 12 matches, and in recent years the teams crowned English champions have lost a maximum of five games. It would be difficult going on impossible for the Gunners to remain undefeated in their remaining 26 league games, not least because they have seven further matches against United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

The glass half full view is that Arsenal is one win away from qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages, it is still in the League Cup with the F.A. Cup to come.

Yet questions are being asked about Arsene Wenger's management with some boos heard at the end of the 0-0 stalemate with Fenerbahce on Wednesday.

Most clubs would love to have the so-called problems of Arsenal, but Gunners supporters have become spoiled under Wenger and three years without a trophy is making the Emirates faithful impatient.

It is strange that the main criticism of Wenger is that he loves the beautiful game too much. The Frenchman will not change his philosophy and sees no credit in being ugly winners.

He accused Stoke of deliberately going out to hurt Arsenal players last weekend — Theo Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor face a few weeks on the sidelines because of injuries sustained during the 2-1 defeat at Britannia Stadium.

As Arsenal has incurred almost 80 red cards during his 12 years in charge, the Gunners are hardly pansies, but Wenger has no Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams or Martin Keown to give the team a more physical presence.

Arsenal has a soft under-belly which Chelsea, United and Liverpool do not.

Other Wenger teams have combined skill and steel but the 2008 version tries to win by out-footballing opponents. Sadly, perhaps, it does not always work.

Most neutrals agree that Arsenal's football is the best but Gunners fans also want an end product.

As Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers said: "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser."

With Cesc Fabregas pulling the strings and Walcott, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie in full flow, Arsenal is a spectacular sight — as exciting as any side in Europe.

But there needs to be some beast to go with Arsenal's beauty.

Victory for Arsenal on Saturday would see it leap-frog United into third place, so perhaps it is hardly time to start alarm bells ringing. Yet defeat would increase the pressure on Wenger to compromise his beliefs and those who know him also know that will not happen.

Ever.

Given Wenger's track record he should be trusted to find a solution and his movements in the January transfer window will be significant.

More immediately, Arsenal faces what is a must-win game for it against United.

"This is massive," said Fabregas. "This is welcomed because it's a big game and big players want to play in big games. We don't want excuses because we are playing for Arsenal and a lot of players would like to be in our position. We have to make sure we give everything on the pitch."

* * * * *

STEVEN GERRARD and Rafa Benitez were asked about the dubious (putting it mildly) penalty awarded in the Liverpool captain's favor in the fifth minute of stoppage time, which gave it a 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid on Tuesday.

Both agreed that, yes, they thought it was a penalty. Had they been asked: "So if the same incident had occurred in the Liverpool penalty area you would have said 'the referee got it spot-on?' "

Would they heck.

Managers and players whinge and moan about marginal decisions that go against them but when they are the beneficiaries it's always a clear penalty. Funny that.

As most people saw it, Gerrard probably ran into Atletico defender Mariano Pernia, rather than lay any blame on the Spaniard, and as the Liverpool captain fell he exaggerated his landing and facial expression to hopefully win an undeserved penalty.

Mission accomplished.

Gerrard is a magnificent player whose inspiration, dedication, skill and leadership are probably unrivaled as a captain. But there is a side of the England international that is becoming as talked about as his talent — his diving.

The Atletico incident was not the first time Gerrard has crash-landed.

Intriguingly, in his autobiography Gerrard wrote about the 2006 World Cup sending off of Wayne Rooney after the England striker had trodden on the most delicate of parts owned by Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho.

As Carvalho, thankfully not seriously hurt, counted his blessings, Cristiano Ronaldo was caught winking by a television camera, which could have meant anything and everything or nothing.

Gerrard was furious when Ronaldo became involved after Rooney had stomped on Carvalho's "groin."

"Sadly a dark side stains Cristiano Ronaldo's game," wrote Gerrard. "His part in Wayne Rooney's dismissal was a disgrace.

"What really [got to] all the England players was Ronaldo's wink to his bench. It was a wink, which said 'job done.'

"How could he do that to his Manchester United team-mate?

"On the bus after the game Wayne asked me: 'What do you think about the wink?'

"I said: 'Honestly, Wazza, if we were playing Spain and [Liverpool teammates] Xabi Alonso or Luis Garcia winked at the referee or gave a signal for me to be sent off, I would never speak to them again."

When Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo stopped play and showed a red card, Gerrard initially thought it was for a Portuguese player.

"Players like Carvalho are damaging football, not Wayne Rooney," continued Gerrard. "It's coached into them that when an incident like that happens, they go to work on the ref."

What on earth did Gerrard think could have happened?

Carvalho attacking Rooney's boot with his groin?

The defender's only crime was to be trodden on.

And in Gerrard's mind it seems only Johnny Foreigner cheats. No English player would dream of attempting to deceive the referee by diving.

Don't they sell mirrors in Liverpool? Have they never heard of pots and kettles?

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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