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Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal poised to end trophy drought


LONDON — It will be a small start but Arsene Wenger knows it is not enough.

Christopher Davies

Arsenal's six-year wait for silverware could — should — end Sunday when it meets Birmingham City at Wembley in the League Cup final.

The League Cup is the last of the priorities for English football's elite, almost a consolation prize but at least it will get rid of the statistic that has grown annually since 2005 when the Gunners won the F.A. Cup. Since then, only Wenger's insistence that his way — producing a team rather than buying one — is best. He's right but fans who have feasted on success do not like famine.

Wenger used to select what amounted to his youth team in the competition but this season his League Cup sides have been a mix-and-match of first-team and fringe players, reflecting the need to win something.

Gone are the days when he chose players no one had heard of.

Arsenal could yet win an unprecedented quadruple but Wenger's gamble of fielding a weakened — though far from weak — team in the F.A. Cup against Leyton Orient last Sunday backfired when the League Two club scored a last-minute equalizer, leaving the Gunners facing five important matches in 14 days, the last of which is the trip to the Nou Camp where they will defend a 2-1 lead against Barcelona in the Champions League.

The Gunners moved to within one point of Premier League leader Manchester United with a 1-0 victory over Stoke last Wednesday, stretching their unbeaten run to 10, which includes seven wins.

United travels to Emirates Stadium for a title showdown on April 30, while the heavyweights of English football will also meet in the F.A. Cup fifth round if, as expected, Arsenal overcomes Orient in the replay. They are the sort of encounters that make you want to fast-forward your life.

Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas will miss the final due to injury, but Robin van Persie, scorer of seven goals in his last 10 Premier League games, should be fit.

Birmingham, which is hoping for its first silverware since 1963, will try to prevent Arsenal from playing its passing game with a defensive strategy that will see the Blues harassing and tackling as soon as the Gunners gain possession.

Whether this makes for entertaining viewing remains to be seen but manager Alex McLeish said: "We have trained with the intensity to get the tempo, not only for the players' physical side, but their minds as well. With the Arsenal players and their style of play, sometimes two or three touches is too much.

"I've got to get my players into the school of thought that they have got to be ready to play that kind of way themselves. We're working a lot on that.

"I hope it's not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we hope there's more. It's my first cup final in England and I would love to win it. But maybe it is an opportunity to think, 'I may not ever get this one again so I have got to do everything I can in my power to win this trophy.' "

We know Arsenal are the favorites, but they have got a little bit of fixture congestion, so maybe that will be in their minds a little bit. The other great advantage we have is that the stadium will be half full of Birmingham fans, so we really relish that because we normally go down to London and play against the big clubs and there's only a sprinkling of the Blues fans there.

"We have got that fantastic backing behind us."

* * * * *

IT WAS ALWAYS going to be a decision to bring the "weak UEFA" or "can you imagine if it had been an English player" responses and the reaction to the four-game ban handed to AC Milan's Rino Gattuso was depressingly predictable.

I do not in any way condone Gattuso's head-butt aimed at Tottenham coach Joe Jordan, but it is impossible to believe a player reacts that way without some provocation despite the Scot's insistence he said nothing.

In Scotland, where Gattuso played a season for Rangers, they call a head-butt a Glasgow kiss but contact was minimal. It was still an ugly, unprofessional reaction from an experienced player who should have known better.

Many commentators said UEFA had "bottled it" and should have given the Milan captain an eight-match suspension. Presumably, the hang 'em high brigade would give a player who is sent off after seriously injuring an opponent a 15- or 20-game ban.

The saddest but most inevitable tosh from the Little Englanders was that UEFA would have handed an English player a heavier ban had he done what Gattuso did.

There is not a shred of evidence, apart from acute paranoia, to suggest UEFA is anti-English as too many English fans and observers believe. It is the sort of jingoistic arrogant garbage that has "made in England" stamped on it.

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


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