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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal facing uphill climb already


LONDON — If Arsenal loses at Manchester United on Sunday, it will be eight points behind the champions. It may be premature to say Arsenal's Premier League season could be over before the end of August, but overcoming an eight-point deficit to United, even with 35 games remaining, will be difficult going on impossible.

Christopher Davies

A European catastrophe was avoided with Wednesday's 2-1 victory over Udinese, allowing Arsenal to take its place in the Champions League group stage for the 14th consecutive season. The Gunners are in a tricky group with Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and Olympiakos, though failure to reach the knockout stages would be surprising even for the current unpredictable team.

In reality the victory in Italy changes little. The only reason Arsenal had to take part in a qualifying tie was because it finished fourth last season, when in March it was still in with a loud shout for the title.

Its soft underbelly, not least in defending set-pieces, cost it dearly in the final reckoning and the problem has not been rectified — Udinese's goal on Wednesday was a header by Antonio Di Natale from seven meters.

The result in Udine, which only papered over the cracks, was better than the display. Di Natale could have scored a hat trick and had Wojciech Szczesny not made one of the best penalty saves I have seen, with the aggregate score 1-1 Udinese and not Arsenal would probably have been in Friday's Champions League draw.

Yes, Arsenal plays some superb football. Yes, it creates a lot of chances yet it still lacks a killer instinct and remains vulnerable on defense. Udinese was profligate, but United will probably be more lethal.

United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool have all significantly strengthened their teams.

Gervinho, who cost £11 million from Lille, looks a useful striker, but Arsenal's two outstanding midfielders, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, have left the club.

Arsene Wenger has only until Wednesday when the transfer window closes to sign the dominant central defender Arsenal needs, plus at least one replacement for the departed Fabregas and Nasri, with a striker to ease the pressure on Robin van Persie.

Maybe Wenger will surprise us all with some late big-name signings, but breath is not being held. Wenger seems insistent on continuing with his fantasy of promoting young guns.

While Wenger hesitates in the transfer market, almost without us noticing Sir Alex Ferguson has rebuilt his champion United side with, it seems, no loss of effectiveness. In fact, there is a growing belief the new team could be even stronger than last season's vintage.

Ferguson has signed Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea, plus recalling Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley from loans, but Wenger has, for whatever reasons, allowed Arsenal to tread water.

When Wayne Rooney voiced his frustrations last season, Ferguson sorted the problem out within a week and the striker signed a new contract.

Arsenal could not persuade Nasri, its best player over the past 12 months, to sign a new deal and he was off to Manchester City.

Chris Smalling, signed from Fulham last season, has been outstanding at right-back — he is really a central defender — while Jones, playing in the middle of defense with Jonny Evans in the absence of the injured Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, looks like he has been at Old Trafford for years rather than weeks.

Ferguson has given Cleverley and Welbeck their chance, leaving Michael Carrick, Park Ji Sung, Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov on the mother of all benches.

Welbeck scored one goal and laid on another in the 3-0 win over Spurs, and Ferguson said: "He has always had ability but made slow progress because he had a bit of a knee growth problem, so we knew we had to wait for him.

"We put him on loan to Sunderland last season and that is when he became a man. He has grown up. . . "

The return of Cleverley and Welbeck is like signing two £15 million players. In the meantime, Arsenal's checkbook is gathering dust.

* * *

THERE IS no doubt Venkys knows how to run its hugely profitable chicken business. But since taking over Blackburn Rovers last November, the new Indian owners have made this proud football club a laughing stock with relegation already a distinct possibility even after two games.

The self-destruct button has been on a hair-trigger and many believe Venkys is getting what it deserves. As ever, loyal fans can only look on and weep.

Under Sam Allardyce, Rovers finished a respectable 10th in 2009-10, 20 points off the relegation zone. Rovers were again in a comfortable position when Venkys assumed control and its sacking of Allardyce last December made no sense to anyone outside the new owners' board room.

Promoting Steve Kean from first-team coach to manager saw a collective scratching of heads.

Two further departures left Rovers bereft of experience behind the scenes. Respected chairman John Williams went to Man City to join its football operations team, while managing director Tom Finn quit after 15 years in the job.

Under Venkys and Kean, Blackburn escaped relegation by the skin of its teeth last May.

In an attempt to placate its fans the club was linked with mission impossible signings such as David Beckham, Ronaldinho, Raul and Kaka. However, it did bring in Radosav Petrovic from Partizan Belgrade and Dundee United's David Goodwillie, but its most promising player, Phil Jones, was sold to Manchester United.

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


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