James Lawton: While contemporaries fight fires Wenger's Arsenal strike blow for dignity of the game
Wenger has never had to recast his view of the game. It is to win with beautiful football thatnourishes the soul even if doesn't automatically fill the trophy cupboard
Tuesday 16 November 2010
Why is it that Arsène Wenger is dodging so nimbly the mayhem stalking so many of the biggest reputations in football management? Maybe one reason is because he has an unbreakable belief in a certain way of playing football, one that would be – we know – just as unshakeable if this morning he sat one place from the bottom of the League rather than the top. This is the enduring truth, and glory, of the Arsenal manager that remains unblemished by the fact that it is now more than five years since he laid his hands on a trophy.
No, we are not isolating Wenger as a football archangel. Some, no doubt, will point out that Arsenal's most promising challenge for the title in recent years just happens to accompany the fact that they are currently at the bottom of the Fair Play League. They may say, reasonably, that in the Frenchman's eyes, egregiously cynical and dangerous tackles only happen to his own players. They can add that a moral dilemma is something with which he is some way from being totally familiar.
He can also be maddening in his shunning of some of the nuts and bolts of football. He continues to play various forms of Russian and in the latest case Polish, roulette on the goal line after coming into a new and vital season with the catastrophe-prone Manuel Almunia and the plainly unfinished Lukasz Fabianski. His acute appreciation of creative talent is not so often reproduced in the crucial matter of defence, something that will again be tested when Arsenal face a presumably strengthened Chelsea and Manchester United next month.
All this said, however, Wenger is almost alone among his most prominent contemporaries in having this week reason to congratulate himself after the tough-minded victory at Everton which, following recent mishaps, confirmed his young team's status as serious title challengers.
Consider, for a moment, the mayhem that has been stalking the big reputations over the last few days.
As Sir Alex Ferguson contemplates the challenge of reactivating something resembling Wayne Rooney, he is also obliged to reflect on the shocking loss of United authority that has made triumphs out of a squeaky victory over Wolves and mere parity with an Aston Villa experiencing some painful and perilous transition.
Carlo Ancelotti, who for more than a year seemed to be merely building up for a walk across the Thames at high tide, went from the embarrassing axing of his English Man Friday Ray Wilkins to being rendered naked by Steve Bruce's Sunderland.
At the richest club in the world Roberto Mancini, a winner of three straight scudettos with Internazionale, is hearing an increasing din of protest from Manchester City supporters first aghast, now angered by his growing failure to marshal a glimmer of creativity from a squad costing around £350m.
At Inter, Rafa Benitez appears to be starting in the footsteps of Jose Mourinho as he finished at Liverpool, which is to say presiding over a dressing room shorn of confidence and anything like coherence. That was one thing at Anfield, where he had had plenty of time and, despite the failings of the ownership, quite a bit of money to reseed and remotivate his squad, quite another at San Siro, where he inherited the most successful team in Europe. No doubt many Benitez zealots who still mourn so sentimentally and unfathomably his passing at Anfield, will urge the Inter fans to do what they did, namely declare "We Place our Trust in Rafa".
This may be something of a strain, at least for the moment, at Inter, where president Massimo Moratti the other day issued a vote of confidence in his coach so lukewarm it carried the chillingly familiar ring of a death sentence.
Inter have now won just one of their last six games and Sunday's defeat by a Milan who were reduced to 10 men for the last half-hour leaves them in fifth place – and six points off the pace set by their fierce city rivals.
It is just possible that Benitez will avoid the noose, though you have to say it is rather more likely that Ancelotti will pick up his stride when such key players as Lampard, Terry, Essien and Alex return and that Ferguson will bring United back to something more like their true fighting order.
In the meantime, however, it is fair to say that Wenger is currently the least troubled of the serious contenders in the Premier League. His defence still rings too many alarm bells and is badly in need of an early ending of the protracted and increasingly mysterious injury problem of Thomas Vermaelen. That said, Wenger is surely exultant at Arsenal's place just two points off the troubled Chelsea, whose early season power and serenity and sweet football has now been ransacked by both Liverpool and Sunderland.
In the leanest of his times, Wenger has never had to recast his view of the game, at least not the point of it from his perspective. Ideally it is to win, but also to play beautiful football that nourishes the soul even if it doesn't automatically fill the trophy cupboard. It is to develop the finest young players rather than cherry-pick the established superstars. It is to leave your club free from crippling debt, even while building a new stadium.
It is to give football a life – and a dignity – of its own. That at least is the consistent ambition, however flawed it can become under the intense pressure to win. This alone makes the latest Arsenal promise a matter for celebration beyond just the Gooner trenches.
Mighty Manny Pacquiao puts the mess in Manchester to shame
In accepting that David Haye had no case to answer in the charge of pulling a betting coup in his shameless world heavyweight title bout with Audley Harrison – he was merely talking up another fraudulent storm – the secretary of the British Board of Control was also less than censorious about a travesty which required the referee to remind the fighters they were supposed to throw a punch or two.
Robert Smith said: "It wasn't the best first round I've ever seen but I can understand where they were coming from." So could all those separated from their money for fight tickets and pay-per-view under false pretences. Haye and Harrison were coming from somewhere quite distinct from the ring in Dallas, Texas, where the great fighter Manny Pacquiao pounded the classically defiant Mexican Antonio Margarito to win the world super-welterweight title. The Pacman was winning his eighth belt in an eighth division and in the eighth round he suggested to the referee that maybe his opponent was taking too much punishment. It went to a unanimous points decision.
There was unanimity, too, in Manchester. One after-fight text, from Ladbrokes' Mr Racing, Mike Dillon, to the great boxing writer Hugh McIlvanney, was withering. It said Harrison had not made a single forward move towards Haye and was now expected to sign in January for Manchester City.
Vettel's triumph provides a breath of fresh air amid rank odours of pit lane
Sometimes you have to say Formula One gets a lot more luck than it deserves.
Sebastian Vettel, the new youngest of world champions, is surely the most recent evidence of the redemptive power of a racer whose joy in what he does, and the courage and good-heartedness with which he does it, blows a gale of fresh air into some of the ranker odours of the pit lane.
Fernando Alonso, who led the drivers' championship going into the last race in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, and whose undoubted skills have rarely been accompanied by anything less than rampant self-interest, was apparently inconsolable over the Ferrari tactical cock-up which wiped away the advantage he took to the starting grid.
Whose heart apart from his own can possibly bleed for the thwarted Spaniard? His compassion was less than notable when his team-mate Felipe Massa was ordered to hand over to him the German Grand Prix – a gift that represented Alonso's lead going into the finale.
When asked about pre-race strategy, Vettel simply said he was going to race for the flag, pure and simple. He did so, to confirm his status as the sport's fastest, if not least impetuous, man. Alonso was – not too surprisingly – apparently unimpressed by the concept of poetic justice.
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