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Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010

PREMIER REPORT

Wenger needs to turn Wilshere loose against Chelsea


LONDON — Arsenal has the chance to prove it is ready to mount a serious Premier League title challenge when it takes on champion Chelsea on Sunday.

Christopher Davies

Does that sound familiar?

Feel you have read it before?

It's been said every year since 2005, the last time the Gunners won a trophy but each season they flatter to deceive.

Arsene Wenger convinces us this will be the year, but at the end of the campaign we are told "it's a young team" and we start all over again the following season.

There can be little dispute that on its day, Arsenal plays the most technical, attractive, attacking and breathtaking football in England.

Style does not win titles though and a team containing Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri, Alex Song, Marouane Chamakh, Andrey Arshavin, Cesc Fabregas, Thomas Vermaelen, Abou Diaby and Robin van Persie is not young.

Arsenal has a side packed with players in their mid-20s, the ideal age to land silverware, yet the now annual doubts about their strength continue to remain.

The victory at Blackburn was heralded as proof that Arsenal is no longer a soft touch, but last weekend's home defeat by West Bromwich Albion re-opened the debate. Would-be champions tend not to lose to newly promoted sides.

Chelsea has generally taken care of Arsenal in recent seasons, with Didier Drogba scoring 11 goals in his last 11 games against the Gunners.

Arsenal has had no answer to the sheer power of Drogba up front, the muscular presence of Michael Essien in midfield, or a defense marshaled by John Terry.

Inevitably, Arsenal's goalkeeper, be it Manuel Almunia or Lukasz Fabianski, will be discussed, while Petr Cech remains almost anonymous media-wise because the Czech Republic international is not error-prone like the Gunners pair are.

Wenger singled out Fabianksi for praise after he saved a penalty from Brazilian striker Cleo and produced at least two more excellent stops in the 3-1 win over Partizan Belgrade on Tuesday.

Fabianski replaced the under-fire Almunia, who has an elbow injury (Almunia is never dropped, only injured) and the Spaniard might miss the trip to Chelsea.

Wenger could throw in Fabianski but the main worry is whether the Pole will throw a goal in.

"I am confident he will come out as a great 'keeper, I have always said that," said Wenger, but Fabianski is 25 so we should know by now, but as always the Frenchman talks about the future rather than the present.

The gem in Wenger's pack is Jack Wilshere, 18 going on 28, and the best English prospect since Wayne Rooney. His display in Belgrade belied his tender years and I hope Wenger has the courage to play Wilshere at Stamford Bridge instead of "picking his games" as is so often the case.

Wilshere has confidence and a strength that no other Arsenal midfielder possesses — opponents are already singling him out for special treatment, a painful compliment for the teenager.

* * * * *

LAST WEDNESDAY I attended a news conference with Arsenal's Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh organized by EA Sports to promote a new video game.

Chamakh spoke intelligently and openly for 35 minutes through an interpreter, not ducking any question, even those about religion and politics. Chamakh is not your average footballer.

The following day a similar launch was held with Wayne Rooney, who needs a news conference like he needs an ingrown toenail. Newspapers were asked to submit questions beforehand — also known as censorship.

Some reasonable questions would have been: "Wayne, is it true you paid a hooker for sex?"

And if the answer was affirmative: "Did you not think about the effect of this on your wife?"

Or maybe: "Why have you not scored an outfield goal since March?"

Perhaps: "Is it not hypocritical to earn millions of pounds from the media and then ask for the press to respect your privacy in the wake of the hooker allegations?"

Rooney missed Manchester United's 1-0 win in Valencia because of an ankle injury, which Sir Alex Ferguson suggested would sideline the striker for three weeks. This was interpreted as giving Rooney time to sort himself out, but Fabio Capello has not given up hope of the striker playing for England in a Euro 2012 match against Montenegro on Oct. 12.

England will be without Theo Walcott, Bobby Zamora and Jermain Defoe, with injury doubts over Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand, plus James Milner's suspension. The Football Association has the right to name Rooney and have him examined by its doctor, which would go down well with Ferguson.

Maybe the F.A. could send some questions to Rooney, starting with — "Are you fit to play?"

* * * * *

GARFORTH TOWN of the (take a deep breath) Evo-Stik League First Division North is set to appoint Paul Gascoigne as its manager. Simon Garforth, the club's owner, said it was not a gamble or a publicity stunt. He probably believes politicians are only interested in helping people.

Gascoigne is a basically nice person in a bad place. He needs help, not to be thrust into a fantasy world where his last taste of management with Kettering Town lasted 39 days before he was sacked.

A few weeks ago a clearly, let's say emotional, Gascoigne attempted to act as a negotiator with the killer Raoul Moat, who also blinded a police officer.

Gascoigne is vulnerable and needs constant treatment for his demons. It says it all about Gascoigne that he still harbors ambitions to manage England.

He has never come to terms with being an ex-player and yearns for the limelight again, but these days he is usually in the newspapers only for the wrong reasons.

Gazza said: "I will get the same publicity at Garforth as if I was a Premier League manager."

So Leigh Genesis vs. Garforth Town will command as much media coverage as a Gascoigne-led Spurs vs. Everton?

It will all end in tears. It's just a question of when.

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


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