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Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010


Wenger must recognize Arsenal's trouble in goal

LONDON — There are times when I wonder whether Arsene Wenger is blind to the realities of his team or just plain obstinate.

Christopher Davies

When it comes to the Arsenal goalkeeper, he is probably both.

If just about every fan, observer and football writer agree on something, it should sound alarm bells. And the vast majority of those who watch Arsenal have agreed over the last two years — since Jens Lehmann left — that the Gunners have needed a top-class goalkeeper.

Manuel Almunia is ordinary. His backup, Lukasz Fabianski, may be Poland's No. 1, but the country is going through its worst ever goalkeeping crisis.

Yet Wenger is unmoved by the criticism of his 'keepers — if anything his belief in them grows stronger in adversity.

Before the midweek Champions League match against FC Porto, Wenger spoke about Fabianski becoming world class. He is not even Arsenal class and neither is Almunia. Fabianski is called Flappy 'Andies on fan Web sites.

We joke about Wenger's eyesight and how he never sees any foul his players commit, but even Mr. Magoo could see Arsenal is in desperate need of a new goalkeeper.

Almunia missed the game against FC Porto because of a finger injury and the Portuguese champions must have whooped with delight when they saw Flap . . . sorry, Fabianski on the team sheet.

David Seaman, whom Wenger inherited, was nicknamed Safe Hands. Fabianski is Unsafe Hands.

He handed Porto both goals in its 2-1 win, both excruciatingly embarrassing errors in their own way.

Who did Wenger blame?

The referee. No change there then.

It is one thing to be supportive of a player after a nightmare, in Fabianski's case another nightmare, but Wenger must be ruthless.

Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have outstanding goalkeepers in Petr Cech, Pepe Reina and Edwin van der Sar. Arsenal has Almunia, not good enough for either his native Spain or England for which he now qualifies, and Fabianski — let's not kick a 'keeper any more while he's down.

No manager has discovered more gems than Wenger . . . Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas, Manu Petit to name but four . . . so why can't he find a 'keeper?

Or is he in a minority of one who genuinely believes Almunia and Fabianski are the real deal?

* * * * *

SIR ALEX FERGUSON was far more justified to call Wayne Rooney world-class after his two goals in Manchester United's 3-2 win against AC Milan at San Siro.

There were those who said Rooney hadn't really done it on a big European stage. That one's out of the way now after his stunning virtuoso display against the Italians.

Rooney was phenomenal, and Ferguson was moved to say the England striker merits comparison to Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kaka, et al.

Unlike Ronaldo or David Beckham, an opponent last Tuesday, Rooney does not look like a superstar. If anything, his ordinariness is endearing. He does not covet individual awards and is uncomfortable talking about himself.

The shy, gum-chewing teenager is now a confident football-eloquent friend of the media. Rooney could be the star of the World Cup this summer, he's that good and playing that well.

* * * * *

IN RECENT weeks there have been several off-field incidents that British sport could do without.

Six members of the Huddersfield Giants rugby league team were arrested on suspicion of rape.

Andy Powell, the Wales rugby union player, was arrested and charged after driving a golf buggy into a highway service station at 5 a.m. under the influence of alcohol after last weekend's Six Nations match against Scotland.

The Catz rugby team, formerly in the first division of college rugby, was disbanded due to a night of unruly behavior in a local pub. The offenses included throwing food over floors and walls, ripping pictures and decorations off the walls, breaking a toilet seat, vomiting over toilet walls and urinating from an upstairs window over a patio area.

Revealing photographs of Ashley Cole, the Chelsea and England left-back, were sent from his phone to a "sexy model." He admitted taking the pictures, forgot to delete them, lent the phone to a pal who in turn lent it to another friend . . . and he sent the photos of Cole.

The first three incidents received minimal coverage in the press. Cole's indiscretion — or whoever was guilty — was front page news for days. While in no way condoning the texting of top-to-toe photos, an essentially smutty act cannot be compared with allegations of rape, driving a golf buggy on a highway while over the drink-drive limit, or trashing a pub.

The coverage given to Cole merely underlines how huge and all-consuming football has become. It is not so much the national sport but the only sport. Footballers argue they should not be role models, but they must be aware that with the riches and fame comes a media spotlight no other sport demands.

And given some of the off-field stories concerning Cole, it is a miracle he ever found time to train and play.

* * * * *

AT THEIR last meeting Premier League clubs discussed the possibility of four teams playing off for the fourth Champions League place. The teams finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh would be involved in an end-of-season mini-competition for the final place in UEFA's premier club tournament.

It appears the Premier League has not studied the regulations of the Champions League. Article 2 (a) states: National associations with four representatives [shall enter]: winner, runnerup, third- and fourth-place clubs in the top domestic league championship.

So unless the Premier League can force UEFA to change the entry criteria — unlikely bordering on impossible — the idea appears a non-starter.

The reason England has four representatives in the Champions League is because of the continued success of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. If, in recent seasons, the seventh-place side had won through to the Champions League, England's fourth representative would have been Fulham, Portsmouth, Bolton and Southampton.

That is why UEFA insists on the best teams in the top competition.

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

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