Arsene Wenger reacted angrily last night after Arsenal were ordered to play their FA Cup sixth-round tie at Newcastle at tea-time on Saturday 9 March. The Arsenal manager said his club would forgo the TV fee if they could play the tie earlier. The fixture comes three days before Arsenal play Deportivo La Coruña in the Champions' League at Highbury.
Wenger broke off from preparing for tonight's Champions' League tie against Bayer Leverkusen to express his disgust. He said: "Every round there has been a midday kick-off on the Saturday. Now, when we want one, it's 5.35. If we had wanted 5.35 they would have given us 8.35. It is unbelievable. I have to say thank you again to the FA for their co-operation. They complain people do not take the FA Cup seriously but we take it seriously every year and we are suffering. We will protest. We will fight our corner."
Wenger's outburst was embarrassing for the Arsenal vice-chairman, David Dein, who is also on the FA's Challenge Cup committee. The club played down his comments and a spokesperson said they would accept the time. But it is an unsatisfactory compromise for all.
The FA wanted to stage all four ties on the Sunday and the BBC wanted to make Newcastle v Arsenal the evening showpiece. However, because of Arsenal's Champions' League tie, it was agreed to bring the tie forward. Friday was unavailable because Newcastle play Liverpool on the Wednesday. The BBC were against lunch-time as the audience would be poor, while the FA does not permit a 3pm kick-off as it affects League matches. The other matches are on Sunday, with Middlesbrough playing Everton or Crewe at 1pm, Spurs facing Chelsea at 4pm and West Bromwich v Fulham at 6.30pm.
If the row underlines how much football is now a business, so does tonight's fixture. Appropriately it pits the works team of a pharmaceutical company against one with its origins in the armaments industry.
Of course, Arsenal's link with the Woolwich gunnery is now limited to their nickname and badge, but Leverkusen are still very much associated with the drug company whose name they bear. Without the largess of Bayer this small Rhineland town, almost a suburb of Cologne, would never be able to mix it with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. It is like having a club called Pfizer Sandwich riding high in the Premiership on the back of Viagra.
Bayer created Aspirin and Wenger must have been tempted to ask for some when he arrived at the BayArena for training last night. Having taken a knock on his ankle, Lee Dixon looks like becoming the sixth defender to be ruled out, five with injury and Oleg Luzhny with a badly-timed suspension. Thus Lauren, who only arrived back from Cameroon on Sunday after celebrating their African Nations' Cup win, is in line to play.
"He looked OK at training," said Wenger. "He's not one to party day and night and he trained while he was away." After problems in the past with Kanu, Wenger was keen to exonerate Lauren from blame. "He is not really responsible," said the Arsenal manager. "His passport was taken away by Cameroon because the players had to meet the President. We have made an official complaint to Fifa. It is unbelievable."
With Giovanni van Bronckhorst returning from suspension at left-back, and Igor Stepanovs likely to step in for Tony Adams at centre-half, Sol Campbell will be the only survivor from the back four beaten twice by Gillingham on Saturday.
Though impressive away from home in the Premiership, Arsenal have been bad travellers in Europe losing all four ties on the road. Wenger admitted this was partly due to a misguided approach. He said: "I have watched the tapes again and I concede we have been timid in the way we start games. We must be more assertive."
To this end Sylvain Wiltord is likely to continue on the right flank with Bergkamp expected to partner Thierry Henry in attack. In goal. David Seaman is pressing hard for a return. The 38-year-old has not played since injuring his shoulder in September but Wenger said: "There is always a temptation to play him but Richard Wright is doing quite well."
If Dixon joins Adams on the sidelines the temptation could prove irresistible, for Leverkusen are an impressive attacking force. They lie second in Bundesliga with 53 goals from 23 games. Two German internationals, Oliver Neuville and Ulf Kirsten, lead the line but a close eye needs to be kept on a third, Michael Ballack, who leads the German scoring charts. With Bernd Schneider and Brazil's Ze Roberto on the flanks, attack does appear Arsenal's best form of defence.
It will also give Wenger a chance to assess Jens Nowotny, now more likely than ever to cross the Channel as he is operating in a back four. Wenger, incidentally, dismissed reports linking him with a £50m move for David Trézéguet, of Juventus. "Complete fantasy," he said. "Do they think my chairman has won the Lottery several times?" Though there are those on the Arsenal board who have done just that – through their investment in the club – the figure is fantasy. But the move remains plausible, especially with the TV millions to pay for it.
Bayer Leverkusen (probable): Butt; Zivkovic, Lucio, Nowotny, Placente; Schneider, Ballack, Yildiray, Ze Roberto; Kirsten, Neuville.
Arsenal (probable): Seaman or Wright; Lauren, Stepanovs, Campbell, Van Bronkhorst; Wiltord, Parlour, Vieira, Pires; Bergkamp, Henry.Reuse content