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Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Arsenal must rewrite 31 years of history - time for a Theology lesson for Chris Twaddle

FRANK STAPLETON is 53. He hasn't played football professionally for 15 years. So he must have choked over his cornflakes when he saw a picture of himself in today's papers, in action for Arsenal against Hajduk Split in 1978, 11 years before Theo Walcott (above) was born.
But of course there's a good reason for that Frank. It illustrates the last time Arsenal survived a European tie after losing a first leg away from home.
And tonight, as they try to repair a mostly self-inflicted 2-1 defeat at Porto two weeks ago, they have to manage it having accepted Cesc Fabregas's hamstring has forced him out for the second time this season.
Oh, and there's no William Gallas (Arsene Wenger accepts responsibility for that, saying he made the Frenchman train too hard), Robin van Persie, Aaron Ramsey... need I go on?
Wenger today gave a smiley press conference, saying: "We have good confidence. We are in a good position. Let's just go for it. There's always something new in our game and er... that's why we can change history. We have a good opportunity. This side has a good chance to make history."
Let's hope so - in all they've won just 3 out of 12 after losing the first leg in Europe. And perhaps more worrying than all those injuries is the fact that Nicklas Bendtner looks like he'll be playing up front again tonight. I counted five misses against Burnley on Saturday. The Sun does a lovely photo strip of Wenger choosing a wall dummy instead of the Great Dane on page 54 today. Harsh but fair.
Wenger accepts: "It is true at the start of the season you would want Gallas, Fabregas and Van Persie to be the spine of the team. Without them we can show we are still strong enough."
If he does it, Wenger will have restored his reputation quite thoroughly after the disastrous defeats against Manchester United and Chelsea barely a month ago.
In that short time, he has put Arsenal back in contention in the Premier League and, hopefully, the last eight in Europe once more.
Porto have lost their last six games in London and Arsenal beat them 4-0 at the Emirates last season, so victory is not out of the question. But on the 24 occasions Porto have led after a home leg, they have always progressed.
Some point to Porto's recent form - a 3-0 defeat against Sporting Lisbon and a 2-2 draw at home to Olhanense, but they've apparently been resting players to prepare for tonight.
Key to Arsenal's progress will be Theo Walcott, lambasted for his "brainless" performance against Egypt for England last week but looking a lot more assured as he scored and made three for Bendtner (who failed to convert them) against Burnley over the weekend.
Walcott says today: "I remember losing in a youth cup final with Southampton, I've lost the Under 21 final, lost the Carling Cup.
"I've got plenty of experience of the pain of losing. It makes you stronger for next time. And it would be nice if that next time was this year."
Former England winger Chris Waddle, who claimed live on radio at Wembley that Walcott "hasn't got a football brain" continues his attack today. He tells us how hard he worked on his weaknesses as a player to win 62 caps and insists Theo shouldn't go to the World Cup.
But I'll tell you younger readers something. There were times when Waddle, a gifted player, looked like he had no brain at all. He was an infuriating winger, the Berbatov of his time. Lazy, shoulders rounded, incapable of raising his game when it matters. And we won't mentioned the missed penalty.
If ever there was a time for Walcott to prove the critics wrong - and secure his flight to South Africa - it's tonight. And remember Gooners, no matter how bad things get at the Emirates, it can't be as bad as Liverpool were in their 1-0 defeat against Wigan last night.
Tomorrow: Manchester United welcome back Milan and Sir Alex Ferguson says: "Please God, don't let them ask about Beckham again."

Labels: 31 years, arsenal champions league, , chris waddle, emirates stadium, hajduk split, , theo walcott

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Any Porto in a storm for Arsenal as all eyes turn to David Beckham and Manchester United

ANDREI ARSHAVIN'S hamstring. Alex Song's knee. William Gallas's back. Thomas Vermaelen's leg. Manuel Almunia's hands. Cesc Fabregas's future. Porto are laughing before tomorrow's Champions League clash against once-mighty Arsenal at the Estadio do Dragao.

Guess who's gone on standby for the biggest match of the season in the one competition the Gunners could yet win to end their five-year silverware drought?
Yes, Sol Campbell. Picked up for free in the transfer window. Arsene Wenger's only signing last month. Aged just 35, walked away from Notts County, eager to extend his career, but probably not at the Emirates.
And while Wenger, ever the tightwad, was picking up one of his cheap rejects, he was allowing Luke Wilshere and Phillippe Senderos to spend the rest of the season with Bolton and Everton.
Luckily he kept the great Denilson, who will make his usual inadequate effort to help homesick Spaniard Fabregas in the midfield tomorrow night. Oh, and Nicklas Bendtner, kept while Emmanuel Adebayor was sold, may get a run too. Or perhaps the ever-improving Theo Walcott?
While all eyes will be on Old Trafford tonight and David Beckham's return to Manchester United with Milan, for belly laughs we will turn to North London before the week's European action begins.
If this were a footballing sitcom, it would be just about unbelievable. Belly laughs all round as Arsenal fly off to Portugal with a bunch of kids and the star man already planning his move home to Barcelona next season. The Carling Cup and FA Cup have already been thrown away and in the Premier League and in Europe, Wenger's comedy decisions on and off the field keep us constantly amused.
Inept in the 3-1 defeat against Manchester United, incapable of a meaningful shot on goal when they dominated possession in the 2-0 defeat against Chelsea, Wenger made a big deal of the 1-0 win which followed over Liverpool, pretending the previous fortnight hadn't happened.
But now, with the excellent Song unable to hold the midfield together, with Arshavin the pint-sized but talented striker out and problems for both Gallas and Vermaelen at the back, Arsenal are really up against it.
And so we turn to good old Sol. He last played in the Champions League in the 2006 final against Barcelona - and if my memory serves, he scored in Paris (he must have, look at the picture above).
But everything has changed since then. From that substantial, experienced squad Wenger has got rid of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Gilberto Silva, Kolo Toure, Adebayor... and lost Mathieu Flamini, Freddie Ljungberg and Alex Hleb. The list of departures is so long, we don't have room.
Most worrying of all? Jens Lehmann has been replaced in goal by the even more unstable Manuel Almunia. Against Chelsea, when Drogba's free-kick hit the bar two feet from his head, the bemused Spaniard barely moved. Just watched it. He's still capable of great saves Almunia, but the consistency is gone. And in a goalkeeper, that's everything.
Still Almunia is another casualty tomorrow night, so you might hope to see a return for Vito Mannone, the Italian who had a good run in mid-season. But no, the Pole Lukasz Fabianski has been ear-marked for the No1 shirt.
Plenty of money has been made with all the famous "Invincible" departures of course. and Gooners must consider themselves fortunate that, despite the cost of the new stadium, Arsenal aren't among the Portsmouths and Cardiffs, struggling against foreclosure for overspending.
But somehow, Wenger, in his bid to prove the most profitable manager in the history of English football, has taken his eye off the ball. Anybody who has seen his side's last three attempts at winning will know that. Despite having Robin van Persie, Johan Djourou and Kieran Gibbs on the long-term injured list, he didn't dip into the alleged £40m Arsenal claimed he was allowed to spend in January.
Wenger seems to have forgotten what it's all about. He's forgotten about scoring goals. He's forgotten about finding young, English talent, He's forgotten about the fans, who pay over the odds without the prospect of silverware.This from Arshavin, who was exposed when he was played up front alone in the awful defeat against United: "If all goes well, I will get back on the pitch as early as the next league match against Sunderland. However, I will miss the game against Porto."
So no strikers at all then. Not really. No sign of Eduardo, who never really recovered from the ankle break. His hamstring injury, supposedly nearly better last week, remains a problem. Bendtner will lead the line we are told tonight. Mexican Carlos Vela? He's out too. But they're all lightweights. If ever a club needed a striker, it's Arsenal. But Wenger did nothing in January, other than chat about how all the goal-getters were pricing themselves too high.
And at the back, half a defence. Vermaelen, evidence of Wenger's ability to buy when he really wants to, says of his badly bruised leg, picked up against Aston Villa last month: 'It turned out that I could play against Manchester United, but after that game I had some more problems, so I went for another scan.
"We could see then that there was a big bruise on the bone, and that's all - so it is painful but that can be controlled with medicine and when it is not broken, you can't do too much wrong. It is not a big problem to play - yes it is still there and will take some time to go away, but it is not dangerous.'
Yup, just like his forward line. A big problem, but it's still there and it's certainly not dangerous.

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