Football: Beware United when they start to concentrate

WHILE THE pages of the tabloids have been dominated by the Blair babe and the merits of international footballers staying up late to watch a boxing match, it may have escaped your attention that there is still a Premiership battle going on.

At the half-term stage it seems that Chelsea are on the losing side. Arsenal have been rejuvenated and Manchester United are on autopilot and flying towards inevitable success in some competition or other. But Chelsea sit ninth in the table and, with four losses already in the bag, it would be a very brave pundit who would put his or her money on the Blues for the title.

Just how many of their poor League results can be put down to European distractions is difficult to assess. Their Champions' League performances have been bold encounters with some of the world's best and, when it really counted, they came out on top. Yet it seems that the switch in direction from Milan's San Siro on a Wednesday to Vicarage Road on a Saturday is not something Chelsea have mastered.

Their coach, Gianluca Vialli, has assembled a squad of players who have some of the most decorated CVs in the business, with three World Cup winners and a duo of players who have won the Champions' League twice (Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly) regularly gracing his team-sheet. But, whatever the individual merits of the side, the overall effect is of a group of men who are making their first journey together.

Manchester United didn't get it right first time. To be able to lift yourself three days after the glamour of Europe requires real mental toughness. That is not to say that Chelsea are not tough. You can't travel to the intimidating Ali Sami stadium in Istanbul and annihilate the likes of Galatasaray 5-0 without it. If they can find a mental equilibrium, Chelsea's stock will rise.

In contrast, Arsenal seem to be relieved that the mental pressure of the Champions' League has been removed. On Saturday they appeared to breathe a collective sigh of relief and, with Dennis Bergkamp performing like he did against Middlesbrough, they will find it difficult to lose. As we saw in this year's Champions' League, however, they find it very easy to lose when the Dutchman goes walkabout. Having interviewed and met the man only once, I can't claim to be an authority on what makes Dennis tick, but I know he is still desperately disappointed that he didn't make the 1998 FA Cup final. This may seem a bizarre situation, but when it involves a highly rated world talent it simply illustrates that the romance of that competition is not dead despite the fact the holders Manchester United have pulled out.

The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, said after Saturday's result that his team have attained a level of consistency - and, at the moment, that is consistently brilliant. The biggest threat to their current run is the fact they will be losing Nwankwo Kanu to international duties in the New Year, but they have the cover to still compete effectively in both the FA Cup or League.

Manchester United may well be crowned world club champions by the end of January, but where do they go from there? It will take a great manager to motivate them in their remaining domestic and European competitions, and as luck would have it they have one of those. Then again they may come home from Brazil empty handed, and without a place in the FA Cup.

To most of us United seem to be cruising at the moment. Despite their goalkeeping disruptions they are top of the Premiership and seem to have a straightforward passage to the quarter-finals of the Champions' League. The European competition should force United to raise their game a gear and, as they proved last season, that could be bad news for the rest of the Premiership.

Finally, David O'Leary's glinting Irish eyes have metamorphosised into the steely expression donned by managers who win things. Despite his guarded interviews and unwillingness to commit to the possibility of taking the title this year, his players are more forthcoming. As Sir Alex Ferguson discovered a few years ago youngsters do win things. With only the distraction of a European competition that doesn't put intensive demands upon them, the kids could come good.

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