Problems await Wenger
Thursday 20 February 2003
It was tempting fate. Barely 24 hours after Arsène Wenger spoke of how lucky his squad had been with injuries, he lost Martin Keown just before the Champions' League encounter with Ajax and then David Seaman at half-time. To cap it all, the Arsenal manager lost his own voice to laryngitis.
The injuries to his players – a bad back for Keown, a sore hip for Seaman – may provoke jokes about their age. But both are important figures are likely to miss Saturday's Premiership game against Manchester City and are doubtful for the return in Amsterdam on Wednesday against an Ajax side shorn of eight players at Highbury.
Wenger did not need words to express his frustration. His face – and actions as he turned towards the tunnel even as the referee was lifting the whistle to his lips – said it all. What a difference a day made in the demeanour of the Frenchman.
A fourth successive Champions' League game at home without victory is not the form of prospective winners of a competition which his players admit is their target this season. The 1-1 result, plus the win Valencia earned in Rome, means that Group B is living up to its billing as the Group of Death. It is difficult now to perm any two from the champions of England, the Netherlands and Spain but a cold analysis simply shows that with the three equal on points it is Arsenal who have to travel to both their main rivals.
Going to the Mestalla – where Valencia so comfortably disposed of Liverpool – needing a positive result is not something Wenger will want to contemplate, especially as he regards the Spanish side as probably the strongest in the competition.
First up, however, are Ajax, who in young players such as Steven Pienaar, the 20-year-old South African, goalscorer Nigel de Jong, 18, Maxwell, the 21-year-old Brazilian and Cristian Chivu, the 22-year-old captain, are earning comparisons with the sides from their club's rich traditions.
In the first half, in particular, they showed enough inventive, positive play to give their coach, Ronald Koeman, grounds for optimism although he acknowledged that they rode their luck at times. Arsenal will now hope to produce the kind of counter-attacking display which garnered victories in Eindhoven, Auxerre and Rome.
In goal should be Stuart Taylor, 22, who came on against Ajax and is the only fit keeper available. With Seaman doubtful, Rami Shaaban still recovering from a broken leg, the Gunners' other keeper, Guillaume Warmuz, is not eligible after playing for Lens earlier in the competition.
Taylor said: "Before the start I was told that Dave was feeling some stiffness in his hip but he thought he could get through it. He was signalling to the bench during the first half so you have just got to get yourself ready. Luckily for me he stayed on until half-time and that gives you longer to prepare yourself.'
Arsenal will hope he is not an omen. Taylor's last game in the Champions' League was away in Spain, where the Gunners were beaten 2-0 by Deportivo La Coruña.
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