Lee Dixon: Hair nets, rats and blood up the walls...Champions League can take its toll

The Weekend Dossier
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The Independent Football

This is the time of year when the Champions League starts to have a big impact on the race for the Premier League. Experience is more important than ever, but for Tottenham they are facing something new.

They host Milan next week with a 1-0 lead from the first leg in San Siro, and that obviously is a dream scenario. It could work in their favour that they are new to the Champions League – that naïvety makes it all very exciting and that could help see them through having to play in Europe in midweek, and then again in the Premier League at the weekend.

History suggests, however, that players find it very difficult to maintain a high level of performance in both competitions. Over the past 10 years, for instance, it is no coincidence that teams have regularly lost Premier League games straight after playing in the Champions League. Manchester United are not immune to it, but the experience of having done it before for several seasons certainly helps as you try to avoid slipping up.

At Arsenal we used to be reminded of the fact that we had another game coming up fast almost as soon as the European game was over. If we were playing away, we would fly back straight after the game, so at least you were sleeping in your own bed. You don't get to see the town or city where you are staying, just the airport, hotel and ground.

When George Graham was the manager, we used to have the next day off. But Arsène Wenger has a great understanding of what the body and mind need, and he gets the players in for a warm-down the following day. You spend some time on the bike in the gym, or have a massage or something, and it's a bit easier to get back up for it when you return to full training the next day.

Personally, I think it's easier to get up for a big game, like playing Liverpool, the weekend after a European game, rather than a less attractive fixture. I remember we lost to Leicester one time, and it was hard to lift ourselves for the game. Senior players can help at times like that. It might be harder for Tottenham, rather than the players of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, who are all used to juggling the two competitions.

Spurs lost to Blackpool in the next game after they beat Milan, and that could be for any number of reasons, and it may have been unrelated to their European exertions. But results tend to show that teams find it hard to deal with two demanding competitions.

I will be in Barcelona next week to commentate on the second leg of their tie with Arsenal, and it should give me a chance actually to visit the city. I can't tell you much about the place, but I can tell you plenty about the departures lounge at the airport.

Sometimes, however, you don't want to see the place you are staying. I remember we played Shakhtar Donetsk in November 2000 and Oleg Luzhny told us what to expect in Ukraine, and he didn't paint a pretty picture. In fact, it was far worse.

Arsenal had already qualified for the knockout stages, so we were hoping to be left at home. But Arsène wanted two senior pros in the side, and it was Martin Keown and me who had to go.

There was a rat in the hotel, and there was blood on the walls of my room. There was no heating, so we had to sleep in our tracksuits, and we had hairnets on in case of lice, even though we brought all our own bedding, including pillow cases.

My bed was filthy so I slept on the floor, in my hair net and bobble hat, and woke up with a terribly stiff neck. The stadium was unreal, a huge open place with a chemical plant behind it spewing yellow, sulphureous smoke. You couldn't make it up. It was the most horrendous trip I had ever been on, and to cap it all we got spanked 3-0.

Times have changed, fortunately, not least in Donetsk where I hear there is now a six-star hotel. However, it is still very demanding on players and managers to have so many key games in such a short space of time. Apart from Manchester United in 1999, no team has managed to win both the Champions and Premier Leagues in the same season. Tottenham are the team that is not accustomed to playing in the European Cup, and that will undoubtedly be a factor as they battle with Chelsea for fourth and a place in next season's Champions League competition.

Five Asides

1. I know Kolo from my Arsenal days and he is not a drugs cheat

I was very surprised when I heard the news that Kolo Touré had failed a drugs test. I have never known a player take performance-enhancing drugs, and I know Kolo from our Arsenal days and he is not the type to use recreational drugs. He's a strict Muslim, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke. So I would think he has taken something inadvertently. But there are guidelines on what is allowable and Kolo has clearly made a big mistake.

2. Fergie must remember he gets plenty his way

Sir Alex Ferguson's comments about referee Martin Atkinson were made from pure anger and frustration. He had just seen the official make two or three big mistakes and United paid the price, and that frustration just came out straight after the game. But on the flip side, he got away with the Wayne Rooney decision just a couple of days earlier. You can't get it all your own way.

3. Chelsea handed Wenger best cure for cup loss

Arsenal were deeply disappointed to lose the Carling Cup, but they were handed the perfect fillip when Chelsea beat Manchester United two days later to blow the title race open.

4. I was distraught to hear of Richards' death

I was so shocked and saddened to hear of the death of Dean Richards. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

5. My wife is dancing with the Penguins tonight

My wife is coming out of semi-retirement tonight at the Shunt, dancing to a piece she has choreographed, to music being played by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. There's no danger of me coming out of retirement, though.

Lee Dixon's verdict on all the weekend action

Birmingham City vs West Bromwich Albion

Dixon's verdict: Alex McLeish's side will still be on cloud nine after that League Cup win but is important they focus their minds on the relegation battle. Despite a number of injury worries I back them to win.

Kick-off: Today, 12.45pm (Sky Sports 2; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Arsenal vs Sunderland

Dixon's verdict: Robin van Persie has again succumbed to injury, while Steve Bruce can welcome back Danny Welbeck to the Sunderland fold. Arsenal should still have enough to prevail ahead of the trip to Barcelona.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Setanta Ireland; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Bolton Wanderers vs Aston Villa

Dixon's verdict: Two sides in good form could cancel each other out. Gérard Houllier rested players at Manchester City but, with Richard Dunne out with a shoulder injury, he may have to settle for a point.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Fulham vs Blackburn Rovers

Dixon's verdict: Fulham secured a fine point at Manchester City last weekend and should maintain their form against a Blackburn side that are displaying worrying signs as they continue to slip down the table.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Newcastle United vs Everton

Dixon's verdict: Newcastle again failed to win at home against Bolton last week and might find it hard going against an Everton side who will be desperate to atone for that midweek FA Cup exit to Reading.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

West Ham United vs Stoke City

Dixon's verdict: Demba Ba looks like he could be the key to the Hammers' chances of staying up and may again start alone up front against a Stoke side that have won twice in the last five seasons at Upton Park.

Kick-off: Today, 3pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Draw

Manchester City vs Wigan Athletic

Dixon's verdict: City have struggled for league form in recent weeks and dropped valuable points against Fulham so a win is imperative here. Wigan should not put up too much of a fight so I feel City will prevail.

Kick-off: Today, 5.30pm (ESPN; Highlights BBC1, 10.30pm)

Prediction: Home win

Liverpool vs Manchester United

Dixon's verdict: Despite a promising start at Chelsea, United struggled to match their hosts and could find it equally tough here without Nemanja Vidic. United's big-game experience should see them manage a point.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 1.30pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10pm)

Prediction: Draw

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Tottenham Hotspur

Dixon's verdict: After just one game in three weeks Harry Redknapp faces a delicate balancing act ahead of next week's visit of Milan. Wolves looked impressive against Blackpool but Spurs' need is perhaps greater.

Kick-off: Tomorrow, 4pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights BBC2, 10pm)

Prediction: Away win

Blackpool vs Chelsea

Dixon's verdict: David Luiz looked very impressive against United but is a major doubt, but, with a returning Didier Drogba eager to prove a point alongside Fernando Torres, I think the champions will edge this one.

Kick-off: Monday, 8pm (Sky Sports 1; Highlights SS1, Tues, 12.30am)

Prediction: Away win

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