Wenger needs to find European remedy

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The Independent Online

IT IS the time of year when, as regularly as leaves fall from the trees, Arsenal reflect on a failed European campaign and talk of compensating with a serious challenge for the domestic championship while rivals are distracted by continuing involvement elsewhere.

IT IS the time of year when, as regularly as leaves fall from the trees, Arsenal reflect on a failed European campaign and talk of compensating with a serious challenge for the domestic championship while rivals are distracted by continuing involvement elsewhere.

We live, however, in strange times. After missing out in the Champions' League - a competition they entered despite not being champions - Arsÿne Wenger's players, rather than sticking their various passports in the bottom drawer until the summer holidays, merely switch tournaments. By a process almost as circuitous as West Ham's, and to the disgust of former Highbury heroes like Tottenham's George Graham and Leeds United's David O'Leary, they have arrived in the Uefa Cup.

For all the strength of potential competition - which could yet include Milan, Bayern Munich and Dynamo Kiev, as well as a crop of British rivals like Chelsea, Leeds, Spurs, Newcastle and West Ham - Arsenal, being Arsenal, are bloody-minded enough to win it. What is clear is that an improvement will be required on the performances that culminated in Wednesday's 1-0 defeat by Fiorentina, who thereby qualified from Group B with Barcelona.

Arsenal have again been found wanting at the highest level, failing for the third time in four European Cup campaigns stretching back to 1972 to progress even as far as the last eight. Their record in two Uefa Cups and two Champions' Leagues over the past four seasons hardly describes a club that is part of Europe's élite: 15 games have brought three wins and seven defeats.

Last year, it was easy to see what was lacking. The squad was too thin, especially in attack, Wenger failing to sign Nwankwo Kanu until the second half of the season after being linked with him much earlier. This time, securing Davor Suker and Thierry Henry in place of Nicolas Anelka ought to have meant greater firepower, and compensated for Anno Domini creeping further up on the defence, which had been reinforced by Silvinho and Oleh Luzhny. In midfield, Emmanuel Petit was clearly missed in the matches before Wednesday's, and was then forced to withdraw after an hour with a recurrence of his knee injury; he will not return much before Patrick Vieira does following yesterday's long ban.

The Petit-Vieira axis was, therefore, of little influence in protecting the defence or supporting the attack. The rearguard, meanwhile, suffered more than any other department from the decision to play at Wembley, where only two of the six European games over the past two seasons have been won. The extra space on the national stadium's broad acres is not what defenders want, especially when they are as reliant as Arsenal's on holding the line and playing for offside decisions. It was notable, too, on Wednesday, that the ageing legs of neither Lee Dixon nor Nigel Winterburn had much to offer on the flanks.

The converse of that is that their attackers ought to have found more room, as Marc Overmars seemed to be doing until Fiorentina brought on an extra defender at half-time to subdue him. Even before that, Overmars' delivery had let him down, and if one thing stood out from the critical last two defeats by Barcelona and then the Italians it was the final touch.

Champions' League statistics are now available on just about everything other than players' inside-leg measurement. Some of the more useful ones showed that Arsenal had 17 shots to Fiorentina's five, and 19 attempts on goal to Barcelona's 13, while "winning" each match on corners, 9-0 and 13-1 respectively. Wenger quoted some of these to suggest they had been unlucky, but the latter figures raise questions about their fabled ability from set-pieces, while two goals from 36 attempts is not the mark of champions either. Gabriel Batistuta's ferocious drive past David Seaman at Wembley was Fiorentina's only shot on target; and the only one that they needed to be.

Judged by the highest standards, neither Dennis Bergkamp nor Kanu, for all his heroics at Stamford Bridge last week, are reliable finishers. Wenger has acknowledged that they are similar types, ideal for playing off a more predatory striker, like Suker, yet in the wake of the Chelsea game, from which Bergkamp had been rested, he chose to use them ahead of the Croatian.

It may take a glamorous tie in the Uefa Cup before Arsenal supporters - either the Highbury regulars or the 40,000 Wembley extras - see any benefit from continuing participation in Europe. They should take greater encouragement in the long-term from their manager's honest appraisal: "It's down to quality and we are missing something - maybe offensively, maybe defensively, maybe both." He must decide which and remedy it, well before winter turns to spring.

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