Imagine Arsenal having started last season without Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell; they would not have been fancied to reach the end of August unbeaten, let alone May. But that is now the ghastly possibility facing Arsène Wenger, and it explains why Arsenal's attempt to retain the championship for the first time in 70 years could be fatally undermined almost before it has begun. Day by day and headline by headline, the belief grows that Chelsea can bridge the gap this time.
Arsenal's three most impor-tant players returned from the European Championship finals carrying injuries and have not played since. Campbell will be missing for almost two months; Henry has little chance of appearing in the Community Shield game against the FA Cup winners, Manchester United, in Cardiff this afternoon; and Vieira is two weeks away from training with Arsenal, Real Madrid or anyone else. Which will it be? Wenger stubbornly continues to believe his captain will remain at Highbury, but he must be more worried than he will admit about losing his talisman with so little time to sign a replacement.
A replacement? In one of his more candid moments while looking ahead to the new campaign on Friday, Wenger admitted: "If he did leave, to find a replacement with his quality, stature and importance to the team is impossible. That's a straight answer. But Patrick has been here for eight years, and every year I have faced the same story. I don't think we will lose him.''
There has been talk of Porto's Maniche, who accord-ing to Wenger is "not the same type of player'' and could not necessarily be recruited in any case at the drop of a £23m cheque from Real on to David Dein's office desk. Instead, Arsenal, also missing the experience of Ray Parlour, Sylvain Wiltord and Nwankwo Kanu, will have to rely on the unproven potential of younger players: Robin van Persie, the Feyenoord winger, Jose Antonio Reyes and possibly Philippe Sen-deros, the teenaged defender.
The signs so far have been mixed: two goalless draws in the Ajax tournament, in which Pascal Cygan appeared as Campbell's deputy and Dennis Bergkamp partnered his eventual successor Reyes, who was voted player of the competition.
In those circumstances it is essential that Henry, once he is fit, reacts positively to his greater responsibilities as a senior player, all the more so if his friend Vieira has left. Will we see the clenched-jaw determination to win games on his own, or more of the hands-on-hips shoulder-shrugging that was in evidence during France's miserable Euro 2004 campaign?
There are two further dangers to any champions; the extra resolve among every other team to beat them, and an almost subliminal desire to concentrate on the Champions' League, in which Arsenal have been so flawed down the years. One of the most deeply disappointing aspects of Vieira's flirtation with Real is his apparent disinclination to take on another European challenge with his current club. Wenger is upset with the Spaniards' behaviour: "I'm not happy with them. There is only one way to deal with the situation and that's to do it straight to the club. It is difficult to know how much they're directly involved because the job is done first by an agent. But they want him. They approached us, that's true, though this has come out very late. I don't expect them to come back in.''
Wenger's admission that the whole issue has been "damaging'' to pre-season preparations will bring a smile to the lips of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho. Much time has already been spent trying to play off one of that trio against the others, and the attempts will continue during the season, to general amusement. Ferguson appeared to start it this weekend, playing down Arsenal's extraordinary unbeaten record, to which Wenger was entitled to respond: "I think overall we got huge recognition for what we did and the way we played the game. I'm proud of what my team did. You have had some great teams in England who never did it.''
Perhaps Ferguson has been made a little nervous by his own Vieira factor, the loss for at least a month of Ruud van Nistelrooy at a time when there is a Champions' League qualifying game to come in Bucharest on Wednesday. With that in mind, United will be pulling out players rather than pulling out stops in the Millennium Stadium today, especially as they cannot afford to have another striker injured.
Alan Smith shaped up well amid the mixed bag and mixed reception of the United States tour, but it was the intention to use him as an option to Louis Saha, rather than a partner. A bid for Wayne Rooney would only add unnecessary complications at present. The priority is to establish a coherent attacking pattern, which could prove a formidable one once the Dutchman is fit.
Having initially pencilled in his new signing Gabriel Heinze at left-back, Ferguson, guilty for once of not doing sufficient homework, is furious that the combative Argen-tinian will not be seen at Old Trafford until after the Olympics. Neither will Cristiano Ronaldo. By that time, however, Rio Ferdinand will almost be ready to return, offering the reminder that when he walked off against Wolves in January to begin his costly suspension, United were top of the table.
In the opposite dug-out when the Premiership resumes next weekend, Ferguson will be reacquainted with Mourinho, conqueror of his team in the Champions' League last season. Mourinho is clearly an outstanding coach, who knows it, but has impressed the Chelsea players with greater organisation and discipline than the lovable Claudio Ranieri ever quite managed.
Unlike his predecessor, he will have time on his side, Roman Abramovich and Peter Kenyon being less keen to jettison their own appointment. The one doubt is how quickly a new coach can integrate half- a-dozen new players, all of whom will be pressing strongly for a first-team place. At least the squad is less unwieldy than in the past, essentially comprising two players for each position, who will know what is required of them and not find the system or tactics changing three times before half-time.
Outside the predicted top three, Liverpool should again lead the rest, winning more friends both on Merseyside and elsewhere under Rafael Benitez. It will not be easy to achieve his desired balance between attacking more and retaining the ball, though the signs on the United States tour were encouraging. Djibril Cissé's pace should add some excitement, a quality Anfield has found lacking recently. Behind them, Middlesbrough can join Newcastle in a North- east revival, becoming more watchable too as long as Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink are in the mood.
At the bottom, the promoted clubs will, as usual, be among the relegation favourites, with the depressing possibility that all three could sink straight down. Portsmouth will be happy to survive another year, while Everton and Blackburn continue to have ideas above their current station.Reuse content