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Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Campbell set for challenge in Arsenal return


LONDON — Sol Campbell returns to English football's biggest stage on Sunday when Arsenal plays Manchester United at Emirates Stadium.

Christopher Davies

Wayne Rooney, the Premier League's most in-form striker, must be licking his lips in anticipation of facing a 35-year-old playing his fourth game of the season — and one of those was for Notts County last September.

When Arsene Wenger brought Campbell back to Arsenal earlier this month on a short-term contract, he saw the veteran defender as ideal cover for William Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen.

He did not visualize having to throw Campbell in the deepest of ends against the English champions, but the leg injury sustained by Vermaelen in the 0-0 draw at Aston Villa leaves him with little option.

Sunday's showdown between two teams neck and neck at the top of the table is unlikely to disappoint. It is similarly unlikely to pass without controversy which, rightly or wrongly, adds to the attraction of seeing the two most successful teams in Premier League history locking horns. It will be high-octane entertainment with a jagged edge.

United has yet to win a Premier League game at the Emirates, but has the considerable consolation that it has ended each of the last three seasons as the champion.

The brutal way it disposed of Arsenal in the Champions League semifinal last May suggested a wide chasm was opening between the sides, but Wenger's young team, which has been a work in progress over the last five years, has done enough to suggest it can last the pace.

Arsenal is the league's leading goal-scoring team despite being without Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner for most of the season — it has a league-high 16 different scorers — but no team has a striker in such a rich vein of form as Rooney.

During United's League Cup semifinal victory over Manchester City on Wednesday a banner at Old Trafford hailed Rooney as "The White Pele," and the original legendary Brazilian would not have been uneasy at the comparison on recent evidence.

While United misses Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney has raised his game to a new level, prompting Sir Alex Ferguson to call the England striker "world class" after his display against City.

"His control, his leading of the line and his penetration was absolutely fantastic," said Ferguson. "It was a wonderful performance, truly world class."

Rio Ferdinand played in that game after denying a Football Association charge of violent conduct for an off-the-ball incident involving Hull's Craig Fagan. Had Ferdinand not denied the charge he would have been banned for the City game and two league matches. (I cannot remember another player prioritizing the League Cup above the Premier League which is in effect what the defender did.)

On Thursday, the England international was handed a four-game ban by the disciplinary commission, three for the offense and one extra for what was deemed a frivolous denial, the suspension starting immediately.

Instead of missing one League Cup tie and two league games, Ferdinand now sits out four league matches, which underlines how much Ferguson wanted to beat the upstarts from across the city, sacrificing his star defender for two additional league games.

* * * * *

BEFORE HE joined Real Madrid from Santos five years ago Robinho was labeled the "next big thing to come out of Brazil." This week the Manchester City striker became the most expensive misfit to return to Brazil when he rejoined Santos on loan for six months.

With Santos, Robinho will earn £55,000 a week after tax, about £25,000 less than his take-home pay at City. He is willing to take a pay cut to secure his place in Brazil's World Cup squad, but as the finals start in 18 weeks Robinho is giving up £425,000 to play in South Africa. No sympathy cards, please.

His value has plummeted in less than two years and it is just as well, City's Middle Eastern owners regard millions of pounds as most of us regard a few yen. The club cannot point the finger at former manager Mark Hughes, because Robinho wasn't his choice, it was the board's and he was lumped with the most expensive player in British history who cost £32.5 million in September 2008.

Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning striker Tostao wrote that "Robinho is an exceptional striker, but he's unlikely to be as good or have the same global prestige as Ronaldinho or Kaka. He lacks the physical structure of these two great players."

To Tostao's misgivings, English observers would add the physical structure (i.e. size) of Robinho's heart, plus his commitment and a willingness to integrate with his teammates.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.


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