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Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal likely to bring end to trophy drought


LONDON — The quadruple of winning the Premier League, Champions League, F.A. Cup and the League Cup has never been achieved in England.

Christopher Davies

Seven years ago, Arsenal became the Invincibles when they went through the league season unbeaten. The Gunners remain in contention for the Fab Four after a 3-1 F.A. Cup triumph over Leeds on Wednesday kept them on course for an unprecedented Grand Slam after six trophyless seasons.

With Barcelona still to come in the Champions League, a domestic treble is a more realistic challenge, but the Gunners will rarely have a better chance of bringing the first silverware to Emirates Stadium.

Next week Arsenal faces Ipswich, battling against relegation from the Championship, in the League Cup semifinal, second leg — the Gunners surprisingly trail 1-0 — with either West Ham or Birmingham awaiting them in the final.

Huddersfield of League One travels to north London in the F.A. Cup fourth round and while Manchester United remains unbeaten in the Premier League, which no doubt surprises even Sir Alex Ferguson, this is far from a vintage Reds team. The treble is a realistic ambition.

Arsenal was at its clinical best against Leeds with Samir Nasri once again the man of the match.

United captain Rio Ferdinand tweeted that the France international has been the player of the season so far and the midfielder is maturing into the sort of player who would grace any side in the world.

If Cesc Fabregas does return to Barcelona this summer, the emergence of Nasri as a genuine playmaker, who at the moment seems incapable of a bad game, will soften the loss.

Arsene Wenger has always insisted he wants to produce a winning side rather than buy one in the Chelsea and Manchester City fashion. Worries remain about the center of defense, though the return after injury of Johan Djourou, who played only one game last season, has stiffened the Gunners' rear guard.

There is still a wastefulness in front of goal, while one doubts whether United would have lost 1-0 at Ipswich as Arsenal did.

But at their best Wenger's side is everything you want from a team. Their movement, speed of passing, work-rate and finishing are a joy to behold; in their current mood Arsenal could score five or six against Wigan on Saturday.

* * * * *

DARREN BENT has been accused of being a money-grabber for leaving Sunderland to join Aston Villa, which apparently doubled his wages.

Why is it that when footballers move jobs for more money they are called mercenaries?

Don't most people in all walks of life switch jobs for financial gain?

If a rival company offered you twice your current salary, would you turn it down because you felt a sense of loyalty to your current employer or jump at the chance to give your family a much better standard of living?

Different rules seem to apply on Planet Football where perceived disloyalty and hypocrisy often cross paths.

Sunderland manager Steve Bruce is understandably frustrated at losing a player who has averaged a goal every other game since joining the club from Tottenham 1 1/2 seasons ago.

Wigan and Crystal Palace were no doubt similarly peeved when Bruce, their manager, walked out after two and three months, respectively, for another job.

Since the summer of 2005 only Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba (both 82) have scored more Premier League goals than Bent (81). His accumulative transfer fees total £53 million, making him the most expensive British player — Bent is a Premier League goal machine but lacking the nous and extra class needed at international level.

Villa paid an initial £18 million for him with an extra £6 million in incentives. It needs Bent because Gerard Houllier's team has scored a paltry 24 goals in 22 league matches and is one place above the relegation zone. As dropping to the Championship would cost Villa £40 million in television revenue alone, it is not difficult to see why American owner Randy Lerner has, no doubt reluctantly, untied the purse strings — midfielder Jean Makoun has also arrived from Lyon in a £6 million deal.

The past six months would have been an education for Lerner, who lost manager Martin O'Neill at the start of the season after a disagreement about transfer policies. Villa had finished sixth in each of the three previous seasons under O'Neill, a position as high as the club could realistically have expected to achieve.

Lerner believed what Villa had was good enough to be as successful again this season, but he was wrong because it has been obvious the team needed strengthening. Having lost O'Neill, the side went into free fall and the emergency button has been pressed.

Bent will be expected to maintain his goal-scoring record for Villa, yet his relative failures with Spurs and England are put down by many as a reaction to the pressure of playing at a higher level.

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


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