Wenger sees chink of light through grey skies

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The Independent Online

Arsenal's season of mellow fitfulness has seen Arsène Wenger looking as grey as John Major's Spitting Image puppet. The shoot-out win over Sheffield United, which took the nine-time FA Cup winners into the quarter-finals, brought some colour back to his cheeks, but the bottom line remains that failure in the Champions' League next week would confirm 2004-05 as Wenger's most depressing season.

Arsenal's season of mellow fitfulness has seen Arsène Wenger looking as grey as John Major's Spitting Image puppet. The shoot-out win over Sheffield United, which took the nine-time FA Cup winners into the quarter-finals, brought some colour back to his cheeks, but the bottom line remains that failure in the Champions' League next week would confirm 2004-05 as Wenger's most depressing season.

For a club with the self-image of a European superpower, Arsenal's relief at prevailing against the team lying eighth in the Championship - after two matches, extra-time and penalties - was embarrassing. Time was when the FA Cup would have been ample reward for a year's work. If Wenger's team lose to Bayern Munich at Highbury next week, the famous old trophy would almost be a no-consolation prize.

After his young, under-strength team had endured some fraught moments the pluses eventually outweighed the minuses for the Arsenal manager. Heading the "good news" column, at long last, was Manuel Almunia, who made the most of his recall in place of the similarly error-prone Jens Lehmann.

The 27-year-old Spaniard, ridiculed for mistakes against Manchester United in the Carling Cup and Premiership, not only made two crucial saves to seal a 4-2 shoot-out win but tipped over Jon Harley's goalbound header late in normal time. Wenger felt Almunia played under "too much pressure" during his earlier tenure, but now believed he had lived up to the potential he shows in training.

Another player to accentuate the positives was Quincy Owusu-Abeyie, a Dutch striker. Arsenal moved up a gear after the 18-year-old replaced Arturo Lupoli, 17, for the second half and used his pace to run at defenders. Jérémie Aliadière, who was ahead of both until being sidelined by injury, also made an encouraging substitute's appearance, while Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini underlined their growing maturity.

Worryingly for Wenger, the down side was again personified by Patrick Vieira. Arsenal's captain was too easily subdued by the attentions of Nick Montgomery, and although he raised his game in the second half, he was a shadow of the dominant figure he can be. Just as his protection was once credited with prolonging the life of the fabled back four, so his patchy, moody performance can not have helped stand-in centre-backs Philippe Senderos and Pascal Cygan.

United's captain, Chris Morgan, offered an insight into Arsenal's state of mind, suggesting they were "riled" by Neil Warnock's team. "They're used to winning," he said, "and when you're not doing that, it becomes frustrating."

With Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Edu and Sol Campbell fit, Morgan could envisage their going all the way. "They've been in the top three of the Premiership all season, they're still in the Champions' League and they get to finals regularly, though they won't relish going to Bolton in the sixth round."

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