Football: Arsenal in need of some time off

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The Independent Online
Arsene Wenger's side's looked weary during their Uefa Cup defeat against PAOK Salonika. It is a situation they intend to remedy. Mike Rowbottom reports.

For the three thousand or so travelling followers of PAOK Salonika, Tuesday night's Uefa Cup occasion at Highbury was a maddeningly exciting occasion. They surged. They chanted. They clapped. They pogoed. And that was before the match started.

By the time the Belgian referee blew his whistle, the visiting supporters were a seething mass of jubilation as their team marked their first match in England with a 2-1 aggregate win over the Premiership leaders.

The only break in the Greek noise came when the fans concentrated on the big screen replays of Zizis Vrizas's equaliser in the 87th minute. Those home fans who remained behind to watch must have seen it differently - Zizis The End.

Arsenal's first-round exit from the Uefa Cup for the second year running will probably cost them dear in financial terms. They made more than pounds 2m when they won the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1994, and an extended run in this competition would have brought them at least as much. But as their manager Arsene Wenger said with a grim smile afterwards, "we will never know".

What Wenger does know is that his players displayed mental and physical weariness in what was their fourth game in 10 days. The Frenchman was reluctant to reiterate the point in the wake of defeat for fear of appearing a bad loser.

It is significant, however, that the club's main objective now is to give their players a holiday so they can replenish their energies for the Premiership campaign. "We've been looking hard to try to give the boys a few days off, but so far it has been impossible," said Arsenal's assistant manager, Pat Rice. "Now with a clear week coming up after the game against Barnsley on Saturday, maybe we will get the chance."

Wenger said after the match that his players had given all they could at Highbury, but added: "I knew it would be difficult after we lost the first leg in Greece. That is really where we were knocked out."

How Arsenal might have fared in that game had they been able to call upon Dennis Bergkamp remains open to question. Certainly the non-Flying Dutchman dominated the proceedings on Tuesday.

Whether Arsenal's prime mover can maintain his current influence depends on his self-discipline - a fifth booking of the season in the next three League matches will incur an automatic suspension causing him to miss the crucial home match with Manchester United, on 9 November. Without Bergkamp, Arsenal are a car without a spark plug.

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