The controversial 20-year-old striker looks poised finally to leave Highbury and move to Real Madrid in a pounds 24m deal, with the Spanish club's chairman, Lorenzo Sanz, claiming last night in Milan: "We have reached an agreement with Arsenal, and Anelka will be in Madrid tomorrow [Sunday] to sign the contract. Anelka is a great champion, whose play will brighten soccer in the next 10 years. Real only seeks great champions."
Two Spanish sports papers had yesterday shown front-page photographs of Sanz aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean on Friday along with the Arsenal vice-president, David Dein, and Anelka's agent Mark Rogers. They had suggested that the signing could be announced before last night's pre-season game against Internazionale, a match which Real won 3-2.
But the damage may already have been done. Remembering that Arsenal's poor start to last season possibly cost them the championship United went on to win, Wenger said yesterday that while his already injury-hit squad would gradually recover, the absence of Anelka and the time consumed by the whole fiasco had seriously disrupted his preparations.
In spite of being under contract to Arsenal, Anelka refused to return to London after a proposed transfer to Lazio broke down as a result of his exorbitant wage demands. This means that Sir Alex Ferguson can continue to enjoy almost an embarrassment of riches as far as United's strikers are concerned while Wenger is scouring the world to find support for Dennis Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu.
"It is a big problem for us," Wenger said. "A successful season usually depends on a good start. Last season we took 10 points out of 21 at the start, and that's where we lost the championship to United, but overall our squad is stronger now than it was then." That said, United's flexibility in attack remains a considerable advantage today and in the longer term.
Martin Keown, who today suffers the rare experience of being in an Arsenal central defence without Tony Adams (injured) or Steve Bould, now with Sunderland, admitted: "From a professional and playing point of view I would rather have Anelka in the team and terrorising the Premiership. Look at what he did last season... you ask the defenders who are not going to have to play against him and they'll all be delighted." Wenger said he was almost more annoyed about the length of time the Anelka impasse had taken than the absence of the player. "If I had known we were going to be in this situation, I would have had more chance to get players," he added.
Manchester United, whose injury problems - long-term victim Wes Brown apart - have improved while Arsenal's have worsened, will be keen to show that Wenger is right to be concerned that a title-winning squad should have a minimum of four interchangeable strikers. Arsenal will not only be without Anelka but Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, while the England goalkeeper David Seaman is also injured.
Although Wenger says that Anelka is 99 per cent certain never to wear an Arsenal shirt again and the Real deal seems set to go through, the club are determined not to let the player remain in France if those talks fail. Anelka is said to be suffering from stress, but Wenger said: "We'll want to send our own people to examine him. Sometimes I feel sorry for him because he has been fooled into this situation without really wanting it."
Anelka, who is advised by his two brothers, reportedly demanded pounds 56,000 a week from Lazio, who refused. If the striker fails to negotiate a deal with Real, Wenger insists that the asking price will not be reduced. "pounds 22m is a bank robbery for me because I would value him at pounds 30m at today's values," he said.
Arsenal may yet approach world football's governing body Fifa for advice, something they have done before. "This all shows that Fifa must do something about the transfer market, more than they do now." Wenger's problem now is to find a replacement, and his pursuit of Juventus's Thierry Henry, the Frenchman he groomed at Monaco, may be stepped up. "I am still hopeful that I can get one before the season starts but for various reasons I am not that close," he said.
Arsenal have already signed Oleg Luzhny, from Dynamo Kiev, Stefan Malz, from Munich 1860, and Silvinho, from Corinthians of Brazil while United, in contrast, have brought in only Mark Bosnich. Today the inspirational Roy Keane will be missing with an ankle injury, but United will still be anxious to win. Their 3-0 defeat by Arsenal on the same occasion last year stung and has not been forgotten, although there was ample compensation with the winning of the treble.
Their manager Sir Alex Ferguson has told his players to forget last season's exploits and start again. He will not name his side until today and will check on the fitness of several players including Ryan Giggs, who has a thigh strain.
"I don't think it will be any harder than any other season," Ferguson said. "At United you are always expected to win things and this year it will be no different. There might be a little more expectation because of what we did last year but we are expected to win every game we play and every competition we enter."
If Giggs fails to start, his place will go to the Swedish international Jesper Blomqvist who, along with Dwight Yorke and goalkeeper Bosnich, will be the only additions to the squad named this time last year.
Probable teams - Manchester United (4-4-2): Bosnich; P Neville, Berg, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Blomqvist; Cole, Yorke. Substitutes: Sheringham, Solskjaer, G Neville, May, Cruyff, Greening, Giggs, Wilson, van der Gouw.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Dixon, Keown, Upson, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Silvinho; Kanu, Ljungberg. Substitutes: Boa Morte, Grimandi, Malz, Wreh, Luzhny, Taylor.Reuse content