Burden of £400m new ground hangs heavily on Wenger

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Arsenal insisted last night they were committed to going ahead with the £400m redevelopment of Ashburton Grove despite fears that the financial burden was affecting the players.

Arsenal insisted last night they were committed to going ahead with the £400m redevelopment of Ashburton Grove despite fears that the financial burden was affecting the players.

The humbling home defeat by Internazionale in the Champions' League on Wednesday night exposed the limitations of a squad Arsène Wenger was unable to reinforce significantly during the summer. However, the view within the club is that they must go ahead with plans to leave Highbury if they are to maintain a long-term challenge to Manchester United. At present that means progressing with Ashburton Grove. It is claimed the required £250m financing will be secured within the next two months.

It had been hoped that Wenger would be able to continue to work the miracle of matching United on restricted resources. Vibrant early-season Premiership form indicated that he could in the domestic arena but the drubbing by Inter suggests Europe is another matter. It was not just that Arsenal lost 3-0 at home while United, on Tuesday, won 5-0. That is partially explained by Panathinaikos, United's opponents, being considerably inferior to Inter. More significant was the relative depths of squad.

United, despite Paul Scholes and Wes Brown being injured, had Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane and Eric Djemba-Djemba on the bench. Fabien Barthez was not even considered. On the same night Chelsea had John Terry, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Damien Duff, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on the bench and four other internationals in the stand. When it was going awry for Arsenal, all Wenger could add was the fading trio of Dennis Bergkamp, Nwankwo Kanu and Ray Parlour.

During the summer months Wenger's only investment, despite admitting he had problems in defence and a shortage of attacking cover, was Jens Lehmann, a direct replacement for David Seaman. The German, incidentally, pronounced himself unhappy with his performance on Wednesday. "I am very disappointed and I know I can do better than that," he said. The inexperienced Kolo Touré has thus been thrust into central defence. He is promising but is learning on the job in demanding circumstances.

Having pushed for Ashburton himself - as an economics graduate, he understands the necessity given Old Trafford holds 30,000 more spectators than Highbury - Wenger is reluctant to use it as an excuse. "When you lose games, you always think you should have bought," he said. "But we know we have to do well with what we have and I think it's possible."

Despite constant rumours to the contrary, the club insists the board is also united behind the project. The prospect of sharing with Tottenham, or moving into the new Wembley, are not yet prompting serious debate. Yet nearly £100m has already been spent on Ashburton without a breeze block being laid. Moreover, work is currently suspended due to planning complications.

Any reservations the players may have are also being kept to themselves. Thierry Henry has said he is looking forward to playing in the new stadium but it is not scheduled to open until August 2006 and one wonders if he will still be at the club then. He, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires have all recently signed new contracts but continued European failure will test their loyalty.

It was only one match but it cannot be dismissed as a "blip". It is now more than a year since Arsenal won a European tie at home. In that time they have played six matches but scored only three goals. It is not as if Arsenal lack experience - Wednesday was their 51st Champions' League tie under Wenger.

Their continued failure to progress appears to have affected Arsenal's confidence. The usually instinctive passing and movement was laboured on Wednesday as players searched for precision or chose the wrong option. It was not just the much-criticised defence which was at fault. Vieira and Gilberto were utterly eclipsed by Emre Belozoglu and Cristiano Zanetti while the £11m striker Sylvain Wiltord is beginning to look, pound for pound, one of Wenger's weakest signings.

In the circumstances Old Trafford on Sunday is not the ideal place to recuperate but Arsenal do have a habit of responding to adversity. With Newcastle, Liverpool and Chelsea to follow, plus trips to Moscow and Kiev, they will need to.

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