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Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012

PREMIER REPORT

Time running out for Arsenal's Wenger


LONDON — Can you imagine Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United — in fact any leading club — going seven years without a trophy yet not sacking the manager?

Christopher Davies

Neither can I, which makes Arsenal unique in the upper echelons of European football.

Arsene Wenger is the Gunners' greatest ever manager, winning three Premier League titles including the unbeaten Invincibles of 2003-04 and four F.A. Cups. He has brought some of the finest players to grace the Premier League to Arsenal, but that was then.

Arsenal's last silverware was the 2005 F.A. Cup and despite increasing and obvious frustration from fans there seems zero pressure on Wenger, who has 18 months to run on his contract, from the board. There is loyalty and there is blind loyalty.

It is impossible to think of another major club that would tolerate a less than magnificent seven years and yet retain its manager.

Arsenal sold its best player, Robin van Persie to Manchester United last summer — what do you think Sir Alex Ferguson's response would have been had Wenger tried to buy Wayne Rooney?

Take out the expletives and you have "no."

Arsenal may have gotten £24 million for Van Persie, but his departure has strengthened United and weakened Arsenal.

A good price, perhaps, for a 29-year-old out of contract next summer, yet even better business for United.

Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Alex Song have joined the Arsenal exodus, with Theo Walcott probably the next out the exit door.

In the good old days Wenger brought Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Manu Petit and Marc Overmars to Arsenal.

Now it's Andre Santos, Park Chu Young, Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh.

Arsenal has never finished out of the top four under Wenger, but pessimism is growing at the Emirates with chants of "we want our Arsenal back."

They would also like the old Arsene back because the Frenchman is becoming Wenger lite and is running out of credit.

In the first half of his tenure, Wenger was as good as any manager in the world, but the team has been steadily in decline in recent years with many Arsenal fans believing the current squad is the weakest during his 16 years in charge.

For Wenger, qualifying for the Champions League represents success — "a third trophy" he calls it — but Arsenal supporters want the real thing. The unthinkable may be the only way forward for the club, appointing a new man with fresh ideas — David Moyes of Everton springs to mind — to halt the decline.

Saturday's match against Tottenham will be pivotal for Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas, who has yet to convince the Tottenham faithful he was the right man to succeed Harry Redknapp.

Some believe he is a tactical genius who cannot communicate, others think he is a coach out of his depth.

Whatever AVB does, whoever he buys or whatever tactics he chooses, will be compared with his predecessor. It is a no-win situation for a complicated, deeper and very different character to Redknapp while it has not helped AVB that he is a "Chelsea reject."

Finishing below fourth, Redknapp's parting gift, will be deemed as failure.

It is 17 years since Spurs finished above Arsenal, though the way Everton has started the season suggests it will be serious contenders to push the North London clubs into the Europa League.

Villas-Boas has been left in no doubt as to the importance of Saturday's game and said: "I have been getting it for the last two weeks, people have been speaking about it quite often — the staff, the fans and the chairman. This is a game where passion is very high, it's a game that represents more than three points because of the history of North London derbies. The chairman keeps on mentioning it. I think it's normal. You really have to embrace it because it's part of the greater culture of the English game. You can't wear red at this training ground."

Those who say only three points are at stake should think again.

* * *

IT IS NOT A DERBY, neither is it a rivalry. MK Dons vs. AFC Wimbledon may appeal to outsiders, but the F.A. Cup second-round meeting of the clubs next month is the latter's worst nightmare.

Ten years ago, the Football Association and the Football League gave the green light to Wimbledon FC to move to Milton Keynes, 90 km from the club's home in Merton, where its Plough Lane ground could not be redeveloped to the required safety standards.

Relocating is common in the National Football League, but this was unique in English football. In the eyes of Wimbledon fans their club and identity had been stolen along with their league position.

Wimbledon became the MK Dons and initially the new franchise claimed the history of the old club that had won the F.A. Cup in 1988, but after pressure from supporters' organizations the board agreed that MK was a new club formed in 2004.

After relegation to League Two, MK Dons regained their previous status four years ago and are now pushing for promotion to the Championship.

In the meantime, AFC Wimbledon — the "real" Wimbledon — were formed and started in the ninth tier of English football, winning promotion to League Two last year, an incredible rise in such a short time.

The first meeting of the two clubs on Dec. 1 will open many old sores, and it remains to be seen how many Wimbledon fans will attend the game in Milton Keynes.

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


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