Campbell returns with points to prove

FA Cup semi-final: Usurped for England, out of action at Highbury - Arsenal's rock craves an end-of-season high
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The Independent Football

It must have been like an out-of-body experience as Sol Campbell witnessed the fates conspire against him, powerless to intervene. On a February night at Highbury, Arsenal faced Manchester United with the title still in the balance, the Champions' League decidedly in the offing, and the centre-back secure in the knowledge that his England place was his for the foreseeable future.

It must have been like an out-of-body experience as Sol Campbell witnessed the fates conspire against him, powerless to intervene. On a February night at Highbury, Arsenal faced Manchester United with the title still in the balance, the Champions' League decidedly in the offing, and the centre-back secure in the knowledge that his England place was his for the foreseeable future.

In the space of just two months, he has become the forgotten man of Highbury and, perhaps more disconcertingly, has been deposed in many minds as the recognised rearguard rock of England by one John Terry, Footballer of the Year-elect, who has made himself comfortable, a cuckoo in that defensive nest.

What is more, Campbell, having recuperated from the ankle injury sustained in the contest against Sir Alex Ferguson's men, is poised to return with his only incentives a possible FA Cup final appearance and a struggle to ensure his team finish second to Chelsea in the Premiership and so do not have to suffer the ignominy of prequalifying for next season's Champions' League.

Campbell played a full 90 minutes for the reserves at Barnet on Monday and is scheduled to return against Blackburn in next Saturday's FA Cup semi-final at the Millennium Stadium. He has much to demonstrate to the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, if not to his club manager. Despite the Chelsea captain having established himself as, arguably, England's No 1 centre-back during his rival's hiatus, Arsène Wenger disputed the assumption that Terry had moved ahead of the Arsenal man in the England order of merit. "Not at his [Campbell's] best, no," the Arsenal manager insisted.

Few objective observers would concur. It will not merely be Chelsea aficionados questioning whether Campbell had been consistently at his optimum this season, even before that injury. Like Windsor Castle security, there has been too often a way through.

Indeed Wenger conceded: "We finished last year with the best defensive record. This year, we are one of the worst defences, and we have only become stable defensively recently. We have dropped a few points this season when we have been in the lead, because of sloppy defending - especially against Chelsea. They scored from two set-pieces [in the 2-2 draw at Highbury]. If you look at the number of headers against us it is one of the fewest in the League. But the number of goals we have conceded on headers is the highest."

What Wenger failed to add was that Campbell was a member of the Arsenal rearguard which yielded those goals to Chelsea. And yet, defending is much about perception, and there is something about the indefatigable presence of the Gunners' colossus which defies statistics - just as Terry does at Stamford Bridge.

What has satisfied Wenger is that his defence's resolve has become far more pronounced in recent games, a factor that he claims will make it unnecessary for him to bolster that department of the squad in the summer with expensive acquisitions. "I feel we have solved it recently," he said of defensive frailties. "We are more stable and we defend better as a team. We play with people like [Philippe] Senderos, who is 20 years old, and [Gäel] Clichy, who is only 19, and they get better every day."

Arsenal recognise, however, that Blackburn's rearguard can be equally resourceful as they strive for a fifth FA Cup final appearance under Wenger. Chelsea's Jose Mourinho has already complained about Rovers' abrasive approach. However, Wenger was not so judgemental when asked about the "tough reputation" of Mark Hughes's side.

"They are, but that's not to reproach them," he said. "I think it's credit to them. You do not want a team to be soft. They are tough, committed and very resilient. We will be favourites, and you expect them to be like that. They press you, defend well and have a tight midfield. The way we deal with their set-pieces and not get caught on crosses, especially from [Morten] Pedersen, who is good in the air, will be very important."

Wenger was reminded of Rovers' 0-0 draw at Manchester United last week, when the visitors regularly deployed eight men behind the ball. "They did that against us in the Premiership, but we still won," he retorted. "There are ways. I feel the pace of our passing will be very important."

For the Arsenal manager, the FA Cup has become like a mistress from whom he finds it impossible to part - although he seeks more from a relationship. "Every year, I'm asked the same question: do you care about the FA Cup? I always say, 'Just look at what we have done in it'. This year again I got caught up in it. I could not say 'No'. We go to Sheffield United, and we play 120 minutes between the two Bayern Munich games. In the last 20 minutes against Bayern some players had nothing in the tank when we had to put some effort in."

He adds ruefully: "Though I like to be in there, my dream is not to be an FA Cup specialist. Every year we get a bit caught up in the FA Cup and, though it's not an excuse, it is a slight explanation why every year we fail in Europe. Because we have not won the European Cup and the championship, we have treated this as a disappointing season. We had to rebuild the confidence level, and that took us time. For a long period, there was a feeling of anticlimax in the team. But we feel we are slowly getting there again."

Would a triumphant finale at Cardiff complete that process at the conclusion of a season dominated by the Portuguese pretender? "Chelsea have done better than us, but we should not be ashamed," maintained Wenger. "A manager can accept sometimes that some people are in front of them for a season. Then you come back stronger. If Mourinho is in front of me, I want his place."

The challenge has already been thrown down. With finance at Wenger's disposal as well as at Mourinho's, something tells you that the summer transfer market could make compelling viewing.

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