Campbell's crisis leaves Wenger bereft

The Arsenal and England centre-back's dramatic loss of confidence means his manager's resources are stretched to breaking point, writes Sam Wallace
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The Independent Football

The break, Arsène Wenger hopes, will do Sol Campbell some good. There will be plenty of time for one of English football's most introspective souls to reflect this weekend as he uses the five-day holiday granted to him by his manager. The Arsenal defender will not be in the team to face Birmingham City tomorrow - instead he will be considering a comeback next week that will decide whether he still has a future in the game.

The walk-out he staged at half-time in the 3-2 defeat to West Ham at Highbury on Wednesday night was a dramatic way of articulating the unhappiness Campbell feels at a slump in form that has been evident for a while. His mistake that gifted the ball to Nigel Reo-Coker and the ease with which Bobby Zamora barged him over followed a chasing from Wigan's Jason Roberts in the Carling Cup semi-final defeat last week.

Campbell's troubles are nothing new; it is his own despair that has forced Wenger's hand.

The Arsenal manager cannot spare a single defender at the moment, after he finished on Wednesday with a midfielder and a centre-half for full-backs and a left-winger - Sebastian Larsson - deputising for Campbell at centre-back. The return of Martin Keown to toughen up the back four on the training ground seems to have had the opposite effect and he might be of more use with a place in the team - an option that Wenger has not yet ruled out.

In his heyday at Arsenal, the right-back Lee Dixon was part of a defence so well drilled that he once said he could check his position by aligning himself with a familiar group of season-ticket regulars in the stand. Now Wenger faces building a back four to face Real Madrid around a 31-year-old whose self-esteem is so low he can no longer even bear to watch, let alone play. On Wednesday, the Arsenal manager did not try to hide a genuine concern for Campbell's well-being. By yesterday he was facing up the grim reality of his absence against Birmingham.

"Sol Campbell won't play. I don't think [Kerrea] Gilbert will be ready so there is not a lot of choose from," Wenger said. "We don't have any defenders coming back and the Ivory Coast [with Kolo Touré] play on Saturday.

"I don't know what I'll do about it at the moment. I must think. Do I put Gilberto [Silva] there or keep [Matthieu] Flamini at the back? I don't know."

Campbell is a sensitive type whose detailed responses to questions suggest he is a keen student of his own moods. Last season began and ended with injury, and he was dropped for the FA Cup final. On 8 October, against Austria, he was reinstated to the England team in place of Rio Ferdinand but he was dropped the next time they were both fit, against Argentina in November. The inference from the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was clear: Campbell's feelings could be sacrificed to teach Ferdinand a lesson.

For a player who has relied so much on his great strength, as well as his pace, Wednesday marked a desperate dimming of Campbell's powers. Being bullied by Roberts is an indignity that more and more Premiership centre-backs are having to suffer but Campbell entered the challenge with Reo-Coker on 25 minutes like a man who had resigned himself to losing the tackle. He was flattened seven minutes later by Zamora who, though quick and eager, is not the League's most assertive striker.

Campbell, Touré, Ashley Cole, Lauren, Pascal Cygan, Gaël Clichy and Gilbert are unavailable and on Wednesday night it was not hard to recognise the effect. The front six can still pass as swiftly and decisively as any side in the Premiership; the misfortune for that swashbuckling unit is that it is yoked to a hesitant, unassertive back four that scarcely looks part of the same team.

Touré yesterday offered his support. "I tried to phone him but it was difficult to get him, but I will try again," he said. "We all know what Sol has done for Arsenal and the England team. That kind of thing can happen once in your life and it happened to Sol. I think he is a great player and he will definitely be back. I haven't felt that he has been mentally low this season. I think he'll be OK."

There was a moment on Wednesday night when had Eriksson taken a check on the centre-halves at his disposal he would have been hard-pushed to find a happy story among them. Ferdinand was sent-off; ditto Michael Dawson on Tuesday; John Terry was arousing more suspicion for use of his hands. Jamie Carragher, arguably in the best form of the lot, was rested by Liverpool and Jonathan Woodgate has managed seven games at Real Madrid this season.

Eriksson's preference is for a pacey centre-half - Ferdinand or Campbell - alongside Terry. Campbell always had that in his favour although the past 10 days may give Eriksson cause to re-organise. For Campbell, whose immediate battle is with the misgivings he has about his own performances, England and the World Cup are currently the least of his worries.

Centres of attention

At the start of the season England appeared spoilt for choice at centre-half. However, Sol Campbell is not the only one to have had a trying campaign

RIO FERDINAND

Has been criticised by, among others, Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane, and dropped by Sven Goran Eriksson. After a difficult start has performed with more authority of late - until Wednesday night where his silly back-header created Rovers' second goal

JOHN TERRY

Still extremely impressive, but just a touch less infallible than last season - and has been lucky not to concede penalties with his flapping arms in penalty area

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