James Lawton: Wenger must tackle cheating in own ranks

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The Independent Online

It could well be that Arsène Wenger is at his wits' end as he attempts to reanimate Arsenal. Certainly, he looked to be so at Anfield on Sunday, which is one reason why he should maybe call a halt in ransacking his Merlin's cave of football sorcery. Perhaps he should consider a few rather more basic moves.

It could well be that Arsène Wenger is at his wits' end as he attempts to reanimate Arsenal. Certainly, he looked to be so at Anfield on Sunday, which is one reason why he should maybe call a halt in ransacking his Merlin's cave of football sorcery. Perhaps he should consider a few rather more basic moves.

One of the most fundamental, and the suspicion here is that it could be the needed master-stroke, would be to get his most influential player, Patrick Vieira, to stop cheating.

Yes, cheating. Helpfully, Wenger claims to be something of an expert in the matter. However, having pilloried Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy publicly for his alleged crimes in this department, he was discouragingly quiet about the appalling transgression of his captain in Sunday's defeat.

If El-Hadji Diouf had not already turned the national stomach with another bout of gutter behaviour when spitting in the face of Arjan de Zeeuw, Vieira would surely have been unchallenged as the author of the weekend's most despicable act on a football field.

Though there wasn't much encouragement in yesterday's public prints, anyone who saw it must remember the incident for quite some time. It came just when the game was boiling towards a wonderful climax, that phase of a tense and excellent match which cries out for the kind of leadership that Vieira, with his mixture of power and the skill he had earlier displayed so beautifully in scoring Arsenal's goal, is uniquely equipped to provide.

Vieira, who until this point was having one of his better games, was bringing the ball through the midfield. Dietmar Hamann attempted a tackle but plainly made no contact. Vieira went down in a perfectly orchestrated heap. The referee Alan Wiley waved play on but, quite astoundingly, failed to give Vieira a yellow card for a dive quite as blatant as the one from which his team-mate Robert Pires notoriously conjured a penalty against Portsmouth. If Wiley had acted properly, consistently, Vieira would have been sent off after acquiring two cautions.

Now if the Football Association really wants to get a grip on discipline, it will throw aside the absurd regulation that retrospective action based on video can only be taken if the referee has not seen an incident. Wiley clearly saw it, but didn't act upon it.

If Wenger wants to do his job, he will not merely be thankful that Vieira escaped the consequences of his wretched attempted deceit. He will say that such behaviour speaks of an inherent rottenness in the culprit's competitive spirit. Yes, we know Vieira has been a warrior figure in the growth of Arsenal but warriors, like apples, can go bad and in the process they can spoil the whole barrel.

What does it say to the brilliant young Francesc Fabregas that his club's captain can behave so dishonourably? Is that the kind of example Wenger wants for his small army of superb young players? If it is so, we can only tremble for the future health of English football.

One intriguing question remains, however. What were Vieira's innermost thoughts on that brief and unnecessary journey to the Anfield turf? When he hit the ground, he raised his hand in a way that seemed to disown the dive. It was as though, somewhere in mid-descent, he realised that it was too much, that even in what passes for self-analysis in today's football he saw vividly that he had sailed way beyond an acceptable mark.

If this was indeed the case, it does not excuse the original sin or the climate in which it was conceived, but it does point to a thrilling possibility. It is that the decline of football's integrity might not be wholly irreversible.

Could it be that Vieira, like Paul on the way to Damascus, has experienced a moment which might just persuade him to look at himself more honestly than he has ever done before? It is the most uplifting possibility. Even so, Wenger, the self-appointed scourge of cheats, should cover his bets. He should tell all of his players - and remind himself - there is only one way for a great team to reannounce themselves. It is by resolving to produce the best of themselves. Cheating in Vieira's fashion at Anfield is, of course, quite the opposite of that.

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