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Saturday, March 12, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal fans have to be realistic


LONDON — The reaction was predictable.

Christopher Davies

Arsenal's Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona was compounded by the progress of Tottenham which saw off the challenge of AC Milan. The radio phone-ins were on meltdown with Arsenal fans (or perhaps Spurs fans pretending to be Arsenal supporters) saying Arsene Wenger should go.

Football is black and white, you go from hero to zero in one match. I have no idea who could do a better job than Wenger, but Angry of Acton and Frustrated from Farnborough tend not to look further than "he must go."

Logic does not always play a major role in football discussions.

Yes, Arsenal was comprehensively outplayed over the two games by a wonderful Barcelona side, yes the better team went through.

Yet Arsenal still beat Barca 2-1 at Emirates Stadium and had Niklas Bendtner been as good as he tells everyone he is, the Dane would have assumed iconic status had he scored a late goal at Nou Camp to give the Gunners victory on the away-goals rule.

Despite being on the ropes for most of the 180 minutes and not having an effort on goal in Nou Camp (their goal was an own-goal by Sergio Busquets), Arsenal was still one accurate shot away from a sensational result.

But Bendtner failed where Lionel Messi, who makes the impossible not only possible but easy, succeeded twice and another trophy bit the dust.

A fortnight ago, Arsenal was in with a chance of winning the quadruple but Birmingham and Barcelona ended its hopes in the League Cup and Champions League.

A double would still make 2010-11 a memorable and successful season but such is the pessimism among Arsenal supporters they are bracing themselves for a sixth year without silverware (the longest period since the drought between 1979 and 1987).

To win anything, Arsenal has to overcome Manchester United in the F.A. Cup quarterfinals on Saturday and subsequently in the Premier League. Both teams could win one or two trophies or nothing. Both are struggling for form with two wins apiece in their last six matches.

Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson have chosen weakened — but not weak — sides for the F.A. Cup, but it would be professional suicide if either selected anything other than their strongest XI's.

There will be a psychological advantage for the winners of the Cup tie when the two heavyweights of English football meet again in the league at Emirates Stadium on May 1.

Saturday's game is immense in so many ways, but there will not be a single word about it from Old Trafford as Ferguson continues his news blackout.

It is difficult to imagine any other manager in English football, indeed football anywhere, reacting like this.

After United's defeat at Chelsea last week Ferguson said on MUTV, the club's official TV station about referee Martin Atkinson being "fair" which landed him with a Football Association charge.

The Scot, obviously, was not misquoted but his reaction was to ban everyone at the club from speaking to the media. This is a manager who has banned journalists for headlines which they did not write (that job the duty of sub-editors on the sports desk) or articles deemed to be too critical of United.

Ferguson has not spoken to the BBC for seven years, since a BBC3 documentary about his son Jason who was working as a football agent (no legal action was taken).

The press is the only link between managers, players and the fans, so it is the supporters who are really being snubbed, the people who help to make those at Old Trafford millionaires, but on Planet Fergie what he says — or perhaps doesn't say — goes.

* * * * *

IT RUBBED salt in Arsenal wounds that William Gallas, who left the Gunners last year, was immense for Tottenham as it drew 0-0 with AC Milan to win 1-0 on aggregate.

Gallas and Michael Dawson stood firm under at times incessant Milan pressure, the Frenchman once clearing the ball off the line as goalkeeper Gomes went walkabout.

Spurs showed the sort of discipline, guts, substance, commitment and organization needed at this level. In their first season in the Champions League Spurs have beaten holder Inter Milan and Serie A leaders AC Milan, their joy at reaching the quarterfinals almost matched by their delight that Arsenal failed.

Harry Redknapp's side have shown they can attack and score against the best while having the defensive qualities to frustrate the would-be Italian champions.

Redknapp's claims to succeed Fabio Capello as England manager after the Euro 2012 finals are gathering momentum and few would begrudge the likable Cockney a crack at the national job.

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


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