Football: Season opener relegated to fringe

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a time when the Charity Shield meant something more than a glorified friendly. The champions met the FA Cup winners and the team that prevailed could return home fortified with the notion that they were unofficially the best team in England. Other results might soon expose that as a fabrication, but for a day they were kings.

Not any more. The participants have had to be revalued by the preponderance of Doubles in recent times, and the modern fixture list has converted the day into an entree before the main course. It is not even a reliable guide to form; last season Arsenal defeated Manchester United 3-0 but it was the latter who were celebrating a treble 10 months later and the former chewing over near misses.

The two meet again tomorrow and you need not wonder how seriously either club will be taking it. The Football Association had hoped to convert it into an Arsenal home game to ease fixture congestion for two Champions' League participants, but once Highbury turned that down, the stature of the fixture was decided. You will get a glimpse into the future, but only by watching young players who may or may not become first-team regulars in a season or two.

Arsenal, who have five injuries, will have the 16-year-old Jermaine Pennant on the bench and if he comes on we will better learn whether his transfer from Notts County was worth activities that have led to an FA investigation of two agents. But United, too, are inclined to give their fringe players a proper airing.

Mark Wilson, a 20-year-old midfield player from Scunthorpe whose only starts were in the Worthington Cup last season, will play after performing well on the pre-season tour to Australia and the Far East, while to his right will be Jonathan Greening, a winger who needs to prove himself a viable alternative to David Beckham this season. With Wes Brown out for the foreseeable future, the defender John Curtis is also expected to appear at some stage.

That adds up to experiment rather than commitment, but Sir Alex Ferguson would have none of it. "When you go to Wembley," he said, "particularly when you are playing one of your main rivals, you know it is going to be a match of significance. Nobody wants to be disappointed in these matches like we were last season."

United are unbeaten in 1999, their last defeat in any competition coming in the Premiership against Middlesbrough on 19 December 1998, but if any team found them resistible it was Arsenal, who had not lost to them for two years until Ryan Giggs scored a goal of bewildering timing and skill in a FA Cup semi-final replay.

When you have won five titles in seven years no side can properly be considered a bogey team and Ferguson scoffed at the suggestion when it was put to him. "I think a lot of that was London hype," he said. "We went about four games without beating them and obviously the media looked upon that as a major triumph.

"If you want to go on records, if you look at ours against anyone in the past decade it would be very pleasing from our point of view. But we don't bother about these kind of things." Of course not, Sir Alex.

The stuck record that Arsene Wenger has been listening to too much in recent months is the whining of Nicolas Anelka, who may or may not be leaving the club but definitely will not get anywhere near the team bus. The Arsenal supporters would rather see a Tottenham shirt at the moment than their 20-year-old striker.

Anelka is one of a quintet of missing players comprised of the Frenchman plus the injured David Seaman, Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars. "All these injuries are a big blow for us," Wenger said. "It is difficult to have these problems, but we still have many good players here at the club and we will cope."

The player most attention will be on is Nwankwo Kanu, whose 23rd birthday coincides with the game and who will assume the role of Bergkamp's regular partner in Anelka's absence. The Nigerian was brilliant in cameo last season, but has to prove he can handle more extensive responsibility. "I can't wait for the start of the season," he said.

Unfortunately, Kanu will operate without his putative partner tomorrow as Bergkamp is still suffering from a season stacked up on a World Cup. "It may be that we pushed Dennis and Marc too far last season," Wenger said, "and the six weeks they have had off has not been enough. Dennis has a small chance of being fit for the opening game against Leicester, but Marc has no chance at all."

Wenger has to enter the transfer market with or without money for Anelka because his striking options are limited and tomorrow will help tell the Arsenal manager how urgently he needs to move. Good causes apart, that will be the prime thing derived from the 1999 Charity Shield.