FOOTBALL : Milan a mere distraction

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At the beginning of the season, Arsenal's Super Cup meeting with Milan, the first leg of which is at Highbury tonight, promised to be just one jewel in a glittering season for both clubs. Now it provides a desperately needed distraction for two cl ubs inturmoil.

While Arsenal's problems - poor results, poor play, a manager accused of corruption and a player confessing to multiple addictions - are bad enough, Milan's are worse.

A difficult season, in which the team has not met expectations in either Serie A or the European Cup, took on a tragic aspect at the weekend when Milan's match at Genoa was abandoned after a home fan was stabbed and killed and rioting broke out.

As English supporters discovered in the 1980s, such events put sport into perspective. Fabio Capello, Milan's coach, admitted last night that his players were finding it difficult to concentrate on the match.

For Arsenal, however, the trophy, which is contested annually between the holders of the European Champions' and Cup-Winners' Cups, may signal a partial recovery from domestic difficulties. This morning they will ask permission from the Football Association for Paul Merson to make his comeback after treatment for alcohol, gambling and drug addiction.

Merson, who last played for Arsenal in early November, said yesterday: "I feel good. I am a completely different person to what I was and I believe I will be like a new signing to the club. I have lost nearly a stone in weight, doing extra training on myown and 500 press-ups a day."

George Graham, the Arsenal manager, added: "He has worked extremely hard. It is the old Paul Merson and we need his quality." Graham said he hopes to add further quality to his squad in the next few weeks with a major signing. On Saturday he saw Crystal Palace win at Nottingham Forest before flying to the Netherlands for another game, believed to be Vitesse Arnhem against Ajax. The Arnhem winger, Glenn Helder, and the Ajax pair, Jari Litmanen, Finland's top forward, and Patrick Kluivert, a teenage striker, are likely targets.

However, as Graham found when chasing Marc Overmars, Ajax will be reluctant to sell while they remain in the Champions' Cup. The same would apply to a closer target, John Salako, whose Crystal Palace side remain in two domestic cups.

Tonight Graham will have to make do with what he has. He can include Ian Wright, whose domestic suspension does not affect this match. Milan have several players suspended but they are in better form, being unbeaten in nine matches. Arsenal remain without a home Premiership win since October.

They have still sold out tonight, in contrast to last year when the attendance over two legs was only 32,000 as Parma beat Milan. That low regard for the competition is usually reciprocated here - few could name the five previous British winners (Liverpool, 1977; Nottingham Forest, 1979; Aston Villa, 1982; Aberdeen, 1983; Manchester United, 1991). Tonight, however, Arsenal - and Merson - have every incentive to lift the Highbury gloom.

Italian crisis, page 39