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Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Arsenal paying the price for inaction


LONDON — Dennis Bergkamp claimed in the buildup to Arsenal's Champions League tie against AC Milan that it was predictable, lacked characters and a winning mentality.

Christopher Davies

On the evidence of the 4-0 thumping by the Italians at San Siro, Arsenal's heaviest loss in European competition since their debut in 1963, the former Invincibles understated their problems, though Bergkamp would have gained no satisfaction from being proven correct after the Gunners were not so much beaten but humiliated.

Arsenal was clueless, heartless, spineless and hopeless. Even the normally fiercely loyal Arsene Wenger, so often in denial and blind to his team's weaknesses, admitted it was "a shocking performance . . . a night never to forget."

It wasn't so much men against boys as men against babies.

From the moment former Tottenham midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng gave Milan the lead it was a damage limitation exercise for the visitors. Apart from trailing behind Europe's elite, Arsenal is simply not good enough to mount a credible Premier League challenge to the Manchester giants, its situation not helped -some would say caused — by Wenger's refusal to spend the transfer funds available to him.

Arsenal's defense has weaknesses Wenger seems incapable of repairing. The midfield is missing Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, who were sold last summer plus the injured Jack Wilshere.

Mikel Arteta for Fabregas is simply not good enough. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has huge potential and while Aaron Ramsey has not had a bad season he is not an imposing player or one who will score many goals.

Robin van Persie is responsible for almost half of Arsenal's goals, and with 16 months of his contract remaining he will be asking himself if he can win the title or Champions League with the Gunners in the next two years. Like everyone else, he knows the answer.

Wenger should have shaken up his coaching staff, promoting former center-half Steve Bould to give the squad a new focus and provide much needed defensive organization.

In Wenger's eyes, Arsenal is always a work in progress, but unless it wins the F.A. Cup it will be seven years since its last major trophy. It is also in danger of missing out on a Champions League place for the first time in Wenger's 16-year reign.

Arsenal travels to Sunderland a week after winning 2-1 at the Stadium of Light for an F.A. Cup fifth-round tie which has assumed new importance.

A defiant Wenger said: "The season is not finished. We have a big game on Saturday and it is a good opportunity to show we have character and mental strength, that we can respond after such a shocking defeat."

It is difficult to think Arsenal can be any worse than it was in its San Siro shambles.

* * *

THERE IS NOW little doubt: Carlos Tevez is the thickest footballer in the world, Maybe in the history of the sport. What is not even open for debate is that Tevez is seriously lacking in the gray matter.

Having lost almost £10 million in loss of earnings and club fines, Tevez this week decided to return to Manchester City "to help them win the title."

So what did he do on the eve of his departure from Buenos Aires?

He went on television and called City manager Roberto Mancini a liar and claimed the Italian had treated him like a dog.

Of course few dogs are paid £198,000 a week — or in Tevez's case fined £198,000 a week because he refused to warm up before City's Champions League tie away to Bayern Munich last September, making him the first dog not to want to chase after a ball.

A team of psychologists would probably only scrape the surface of a man who is so much in denial, if he ran someone over on a zebra crossing he would blame the pedestrian for being there. Or maybe the men in white coats would quickly come to the conclusion that Tevez has a brain the size of a pinhead and there is nothing to examine.

Tevez has been in Buenos Aires improving his golf handicap for the past four months. The decision to return was the player's, not the club's, he had nowhere else to go because nobody would pay City's £25 million asking price in the January transfer window.

His welcome home present is almost certainly to be yet another club fine for his "dog" remark — Tevez seems almost addicted to being fined, which is a seriously expensive habit.

On his first day back in training Tevez arrived wearing a jacket with "billionaire" on the back, ironic (not to mention distasteful) given he has lost almost £10 million in earnings.

Most City fans do not want the Argentina international to ever play for the club again, though Mancini said that if Tevez says sorry he will be considered for selection, but having not played for five months it will take some time to reach the required fitness level. And any expression of sorrow would be an empty gesture because only an unprompted apology has any real meaning.

Tevez has let himself down, the club, his teammates, the supporters and the game of football. City's Middle East owners have shown they are rich and principled enough to take a stand against Tevez's ludicrous antics. They suspended him on Nov. 7 and only now will they start to pay him again.

Rather than let a £25 million asset depreciate City is being pragmatic. With 13 games remaining, City tops the Premier League but is lacking goal-power. Sergio Aguero has lost, no doubt temporarily, his goal-touch, Edin Dzeko's early season form has dipped, while Mario Balotelli can be either a match winner or a liability.

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


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