Arsenal have achieved a rare note of certainty in this difficult season by persuading Thomas Vermaelen to sign a new contract keeping him at the club until 2015. Arsène Wenger’s side, who are set for months of transfer speculation after their captain, Robin van Persie, said he would wait until next summer to discuss extending a deal which expires in 2013, will be relieved to get one key player tied down. The task now is to persuade Van Persie, Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin to follow suit.
Wenger said: “We are absolutely delighted. It is done because I was keen to get it done. That closes speculation about our centre-back positions. We have four or five now, that should be enough.” That would appear to close the door on any move for Gary Cahill in the summer, leaving the way clear for Tottenham to sign the Bolton Wanderers centre-half.
Vermaelen, who has barely played for more than a year through injury, and will miss tonight’s Champions League match in Marseilles with an Achilles problem, said: “I always had the intention to stay here. Arsenal is a fantastic club, we’re doing well financially and we are playing with some quality young players now and they will develop, which is very good for the future.”
The Belgian, who is probably the first player to announce he has been encouraged to sign a new contract because of a club’s financial results, did not accompany the Gunners when they flew to the south of France yesterday to face a team that is experiencing a similarly frustrating season.
Marseilles are progressing in Europe but languishing domestically; their coach, Didier Deschamps, is under pressure, while summer signings are struggling to make an impact; there is uncertainty about the club’s ownership, and key players are unsettled. As for their captain’s view of the performances: “We’re not solid at the back, and up front, we don’t frighten anyone anymore,” said goalkeeper-skipper Steve Mandanda.
Marseilles are 15th in Ligue 1 having won once in 10 league games, and that was at home to newly promoted Evian. Deschamps greeted that result with the comment “winning is the best medicine and will bring confidence to the group”. That was nearly a month ago and his team have since drawn three successive league games.
Marseilles have, however, beaten both Borussia Dortmund and Olympiakos to top Group F in the Champions League, and are usually tough opposition in the Stade Vélodrome. Plus, unlike Arsenal, they have been winning trophies, the title in 2010 and successive League Cups. Given Marseilles had not won anything in 17 years prior to his arrival in 2009, Deschamps should have as much credit in the bank as Wenger. Moreover, he signed a new five-year contract in the summer taking him to 2014.
However, the club's future ownership is in doubt with Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, who inherited the club from her husband Robert two years ago, addressing the players earlier this month, days after giving an interview in which she said: “For the money I invest I get very little in return.” She added she had put €20m in during the summer, and 'it is only normal I expect results'. Unfortunately for Deschamps his signings, notably Alou Diarra and Nicolas Nkoulou, have disappointed.
Wenger will be interested in the performances of Loïc Rémy, a 24-year-old French international striker who Wenger said had a touch of the “Thierry Henry about him”, and Lucho Gonzalez, who would have joined Arsenal in the summer had Marseilles been prepared to accept a loan deal for the 30-year-old. Wenger expects Marseilles to sit deep and counter-attack, as they did successfully against Dortmund. Given Arsenal’s defensive concerns, that is likely to lead to a cagey game, at least until someone scores.
Marseilles v Arsenal: Key confrontations...
Loïc Rémy v Per Mertesacker
Rémy almost joined Arsenal last year – his pace and power could trouble new arrival Mertesacker.
Alou Diarra v Mikel Arteta
The creative Spaniard will tussle for space with midfield blocker Diarra.
Souleymane Diawara v Robin van Persie
The in-form Dutchman faces the Senegal centre-back who struggled badly in his season at Charlton.