Petit's big reservation over the fatigue factor

Nick Townsend hears why Champions' League glory may be beyond the Premiership
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EMMANUEL PETIT, wounded but still walking, indulged in a mock stagger as he departed the Stade Felix Bollaert in Lens. The recipient of a swollen shin from an eve-of-match training session, followed by a twisted ankle, the legacy of a foul during the 1-1 draw in his team's inaugural Group E Champions' League game, Arsenal's Emmanuel could be said to have been on his back more regularly than Emmanuelle in recent days.

The gesture, however, was not so much a reaction to his latest injury which may deprive the Gunners of his omnipresence against Manchester United today, but more a pointed comment on the prospect of perhaps another 50 games this season and his likely condition come the spring.

While optimism still burbles from within the team's deep well of morale created by last season's championship campaign, the pony-tailed Frenchman who has dovetailed so neatly into an Arsenal midfield with his compatriot Patrick Vieira, harbours serious doubts whether any English club can sustain a Champions' League challenge, given the distractions and demands of domestic competition.

"Yes, we have the quality to go to the final, we have the strength and..." - the World Cup winning medallist touches his forehead - "we are strong in the mind, but physically after February it will be very difficult." This may appear the equivalent of defence counsel pleading mitigation before a guilty verdict has been handed down, but nevertheless it is a valid assessment. Arsenal do not possess the quality of reserves should injury or suspension strike in any quantity and fatigue will be all the greater a problem for internationals who featured in France 98, namely the two Dutchmen Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars, the French duo Vieira and Petit, and England's Tony Adams and Martin Keown. Certainly, Bergkamp, for whom the expression "not so good in the air" has taken on an entirely new meaning, has failed to rediscover the verve that made him Footballer of the Year.

You sense that by the end of the season, creatine, the controversial fitness-enhancing supplement, used by the England squad and Arsenal among others, is going to be as crucial as creativity. "This season it's going to be very hard for us," added Petit, occasionally impetuous on the field, but commendably thoughtful off it. "English clubs find it so tough after February or March, because there are so many games. We sometimes play every three days. It is too much."

If they reach the final in May, Arsenal will have played 10 games and United 12 - although the latter at least have the advantage of a large contingent of able deputies - with only a fortnight between each of the last four matches in March and April. Simultaneously, there is the prospect of a run-in to another championship, possibly advancement in the FA Cup and Worthington Cup, in which Arsenal progressed to become winners and defeated semi-finalists last season. International players also have two Euro 2000 qualifying games in late March.

"In Italy, they seem to win one or two European competitions every year," reflected Petit. "But there, they have only 18 clubs in Serie A, they do not have a Coca-Cola Cup [now the Worthington] and the Italian Cup is not so important. We saw with Manchester United last season how they beat Juventus early on, but after February and March..." he whistled and indicated downwards.

Success or otherwise in the Champions' League reflects on the whole of the nation's football, and the depressing statistic is that England has not claimed the ultimate prize since 1984, when Liverpool triumphed over Roma in Rome. When the task force reports at the turn of the year and Uefa announces its expected reforms of the structure of European competition, our representatives must be given the opportunity actually to retrieve the so-called Holy Grail, but which seems to be regarded by those who administer the English game with no more respect than a pair of holey socks.

Meanwhile, in Europe's subsidiary competitions the Premiership has not exactly confirmed itself as the superior force it is purported to be. In the month that the Blackburn manager, Roy Hodgson, approached by Germany, apparently lined up by England, and linked with Uncle Team Cobley and All, has suffered from Dave Jones' Law, seemingly the fate of all managers and coaches who have greatness thrust upon them too liberally. Yet, for all the ignominy of Rovers' home defeat by Lyons, you wouldn't put it past Hodgson's team to extricate themselves in a fortnight's time.

Apart from Liverpool, assured of their place in round two, there is no certainty that Chelsea or Newcastle will survive, and Aston Villa remain thankful to a young man named Darius who proved himself no empty Vassell.

Fortunately, for Arsenal and United, the giants of Bayern Munich and Dynamo Kiev in their respective groups, were also felled by those teams considered European Union Jacks, Panathinaikos and Brondby.

It would be satisfying to conclude that perhaps an egalitarian mood prevails, but you suspect that the traditional sources of wealth and privilege will have reimposed their will once the European season concludes. Except in England, of course, where even Sir Ted Heath might find the generosity towards our European cousins a trifle baffling.