Arsenal surrender gives ammunition to critics

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The Independent Football

Following Arsenal's early capitulation to Manchester United last Tuesday, text messages from Tottenham supporters were soon doing the rounds: "For sale, 57,000 red and white flags. Only used for seven minutes." At least Chelsea followers got to wave theirs for 93 minutes the next night.

After the final whistle, both grounds were left strewn with the drooping symbols of defeat. Stamford Bridge was all obscene outrage, the Emirates rebellious despair; and that was just the players. London will not have its European Cup this season (it is now 53 years and counting) and the two teams and their fans must try to summon up enthusiasm for contesting the minor places in the Premier League, starting with their meeting at Arsenal this afternoon.

Third place as opposed to fourth is worth fighting for now that the arrangements for Champions' League qualification have been amended. The top three from England will go straight through to the self-perpetuating riches of the group stage – something the Government would apparently like to see addressed with fairer distribution of lucre – whereas the team finishing fourth must take their chance in an open draw.

That makes Chelsea's six-point lead a useful advantage. They should draw some benefit too from outplaying and outmuscling their rivals in the recent FA Cup semi-final, when Arsène Wenger was upset with the quality of the Wembley pitch. There should be no problems on that score today, even though the groundsman at the Emirates has just left for Real Madrid, but Wenger himself is coming under increasingly critical scrutiny from less grateful Arsenal supporters.

At Wembley, he was censured for giving Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri only 20 minutes between them as substitutes, because of a concern about the greater physical strength of Chelsea. Three days later, Arshavin demonstrated what the team had missed with his astonishing four-goal explosion against Liverpool, who are hardly a bunch of lightweights.

In the past week, criticism of the manager has not been confined to Arsenal blogs and chat forums ("Wenger has messed this season up atrociously... not fit to win a thing and nowhere near it"); as is often the case with foreign players, dissent has spread from the dressing-room into the public domain. Emmanuel Adebayor, whom many fans would be happy to see leave if Milan are still prepared to pay many millions, made a point all of them would agree with in suggesting "We need some players".

Manuel Almunia, the rather more popular goalkeeper despite his unconvincing attempt to reach Cristiano Ronaldo's 41-yard free-kick, was quietly critical: "The mistake was for us to give Ronaldo seven or eight free-kicks in one game. You can't make so many fouls outside the area. It's silly."

The softly spoken goalkeeper, who may be eligible for England if he takes British citizenship, was not prepared to hide behind the youth of the team: "We have been learning for a long time. All the players have been playing in big games before now. So we should know how to prepare for this type of game. We didn't do anything right today. There are some teams out there who have more power, more strength and better knowledge and understanding of the big games.

"We played crazy from the start. We played more with the heart than the head. United didn't do that. Can we compete with them next season? I don't know. We'll have to see what happens in the summer."

After losing Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini and Gilberto Silva last close-season, Almunia is clearly concerned about whether comings and goings this year are better balanced. The lesson may be that Wenger has done so well in signing unpolished players on the cheap that he is too reluctant to pay real money for other jewels like Arshavin.

His distaste for Chelsea's financial policy adds spice to this afternoon's game, though added pungency is hardly needed after Wednesday night's vindaloo at the Bridge. If Arsenal's players were cool (Nicklas Bendtner's nightclub briefs excepted), Chelsea's were overheated, ignoring the refereeing benefits they enjoyed in the Nou Camp as well as Eric Abidal's ridiculous red card and failing to heed the words of their own wise old manager.

"We should have decided the game outside the penalties," Guus Hiddink said. "Then we wouldn't have this fuss."

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