Wenger delight tempered by fixture chaos

Click to follow
The Independent Football

If Arsenal were forced to field the following team in a Champions' League match, it might be a cause for concern, though hardly desperation: Taylor; Luzhny, Keown, Adams, Upson; Ljungberg, Parlour, Van Bronckhorst, Cole; Kanu, Jeffers. Of those players, only Adams has not appeared in the competition this season, but none were available for Wednesday's game against Bayer Leverkusen at Highbury, which made a 4-1 victory over the Bundesliga leaders all the more impressive an achievement. The key to it was that, for all the injuries and suspensions, the big hitters – Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry – were on parade and in the mood; so much so that picking Arsenal's man of the match was as taxing a task as choosing which was the best of the four goals that scorched past the unfortunate Jörg Butt. Did Vieira's mastery of midfield ("It's not surprising every top team wants to buy him," said Leverkusen's manager, Klaus Toppmöller) eclipse Bergkamp's grace under pressure? Was the flowing four-man move for the second goal, by Henry, superior to the Dutchman's individualistic chip for the fourth? An academic debate, but one to warm the cockles of the 35,000 crowd as they slipped away. What they were certain of was that victory by anything like the same margin at home to Deportivo La Coruna in two weeks' time will ensure qualification for the quarter-final, whatever happens in the last Group D game, away to Juventus. That would be a useful bonus, with successive Saturday tea-time kick-offs at Newcastle coming up in the Premiership this week and the FA Cup seven days later.

"Happy as I am, half of my mind is already at Newcastle," said Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, late on Wednesday night. Victory in the first of those trips to the North-east would put Wenger's men level on points with Manchester United at the top of the Premiership. A high-noon showdown between them at Old Trafford on Saturday 13 April then looms as large as anything, but would have to be postponed if Arsenal come through the Newcastle Cup tie. Rescheduling it or fitting in an FA Cup replay (which would be on Saturday 23 March) will mean three games in a week at some stage; if either Wenger's team or Sir Alex Ferguson's reach the Champions' League semi-final, then every midweek date until the end of the season is already spoken for.

Wenger has already protested bitterly about having to play next Saturday evening and then against Deportivo the following Tuesday, but that will seem like a rest-cure compared to what could lie ahead. The schedule also makes talk of an Arsenal treble – however tempting – unrealistic. As many of the shadow squad as possible will be required, but Lauren, the fourth-choice left-back on Wednesday, is already out of this weekend's game. The assistant manager, Pat Rice, had better pack his boots.

Comments