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Saturday, May 2, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger confident heading back to Emirates


LONDON — Had the Champions League semifinals been stage managed, no one could have done a better job.

Christopher Davies

There are valid arguments why each of the four teams can reach the final, and given the closeness of the first leg games, the only confident prediction is that one English team will be playing in Rome on May 27.

Manchester United beat Arsenal 1-0 on Wednesday, and had the home team taken just half the chances it created, the second leg would be academic.

But a heroic display by Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia kept the scoreline down, and while no manager is ever happy in defeat, a relieved Arsene Wenger was celebrating the Gunners' loss like a moral victory.

United let Arsenal off the hook and may pay for their profligacy.

Wenger said: "It's advantage to United, but I think we will do it next week. They didn't score a second goal and it's up to us to make sure they have regrets now."

Other factors are in Arsenal's favor.

United cannot afford to relax in its quest to retain its Premier League crown, while Arsenal is virtually assured of fourth place and has a less demanding match against safe-from-relegation Portsmouth.

"Arsenal could play Arsene Wenger at center-forward and (coach) Pat Rice at right-back," said Ferguson, and the vision of the Frenchman running out at Fratton Park is priceless.

"It won't matter to Arsenal, but we have to put a team out at Middlesbrough who are fighting for their Premier League lives."

Robin van Persie should also be fit for Arsenal and his pace and firepower will be crucial for the Gunners.

On the other hand, Rio Ferdinand's rib injury may keep the United defender out of the game at Emirates Stadium — which is a big loss.

Wenger's young team — he always seems to be building for the future — was overawed, over-run and in fact over-everythinged at Old Trafford, but it somehow hung in there to keep the tie alive.

Also very much alive is the second leg between Chelsea and Barcelona on Wednesday, though many would have experienced terminal boredom after the numbing tedium of the 0-0 stalemate in the Catalan capital.

Chelsea parked the bus at Nou Camp and Buus, sorry, Guus Hiddink was hailed as a tactical genius when the Blues became the first side in 51 games to shut out Barca.

When Jose Mourinho was similarly pragmatic, it cost him his job.

Of course it would have been footballing suicide to go gung-ho against a team that has been scoring goals for fun this season.

If Chelsea can keep Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry (not to mention Xavi and Andres Iniesta) quiet for a second time, it will deserve its place in the final.

Hiddink's fellow Dutchman and Barca legend Johan Cruyff was scathing about Chelsea's approach at Nou Camp, calling it "two-man tactics" comprising goalkeeper Petr Cech launching the ball upfield to Didier Drogba.

Cruyff said: "I expect Chelsea will pump hundreds of balls toward Victor Valdes' goal at Stamford Bridge. Hiddink had no bigger obsession than to avoid what happened to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals, when they lost 4-0 at Nou Camp."

In that respect it was mission accomplished, with Barca further unhappy about what it saw as Chelsea's strong-arm approach.

Chelsea's dilemma is how to play in the second leg — it needs to win, while a scoreless draw will see Barca through.

Do the Blues go for Barca's jugular from the kickoff and risk being caught on the counterattack or be more patient which could help the multitalented Catalan side take a grip on the game?

* * * * *

NEWCASTLE UNITED prides itself on being a big club, which it is.

Well, it is a big spender and a big underachiever, which has a big chance of being relegated from the Premier League in a few weeks.

It was 1927 when Newcastle last won the title. Its last F.A. Cup victory was in 1955.

Oh, its last ever piece of silverware — the Fairs Cup — was lifted in 1969.

Any Newcastle fans under the age of 40 have never known the joy of seeing the club win anything (41-year-olds probably have a very sketchy memory of the Fairs Cup triumph).

Since then Newcastle has had a succession of generally poor managers, the notable exception being Sir Bobby Robson, who led the Magpies into the Champions League and yes . . . he was sacked.

It can be a heated discussion on Tyneside — whether Newcastle's managers have been worse than the men who have run, excuse me, tried to run, the club.

Newcastle is 18th in the Premier League and is staring relegation in the face.

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


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