Hope all of you have a merry Christmas yesterday. While most fans enjoy a day off in this festive period, the Big Four are hardly in the the mood for Thanksgiving as they are locked in a tense battle.
All four cleared the first hurdle of the tight Christmas program and Arsenal can’t wait to end the season now, knowing that being the leader is no guarantee of success. At this stage, it is rare to see four teams being tagged as potential champion, so the fans are in for an exciting ride with the victor being pushed right to the wire.
Wenger said: “It’s important to be top and I hope the statistic proves right. If it does then let’s just go straight to the end of the season now! In the last two seasons there was only one team involved - Chelsea or Manchester United. This year there are more teams in it so it’s impossible to say how things will happen. Being top now is no insurance.”
Arsenal travel to Portsmouth on Wednesday and Wenger believes his team has the staying power to keep the Red Devils at bay. The Gunners are boosted by the return of Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb as both injected the much needed creativity back in midfield.
After Middlesbrough and Newcastle exposed Arsenal’s weaknesses, the courageous displays against Chelsea and Tottenham restored their confidence and title hopes. More importantly, the character of the team to fight with the chips down shines through. For the purists, “character” is actually an euphemism for the habit of getting three points without being at their best, something which the stylish Arsenal of old abhor.
Speaking of stylish, actually not much remains of that team. In fact, there are some deadwood (which Wenger may not admit) and it is certain he will be doing a decent bit of spring cleaning at the close of the season. A pain in the **** is their disgruntled German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. Lehmann says he will make a decision on his future within the next week as he weighs up offers to leave the north London giants.
I believe Arsenal will not grant his wish to leave in January since this will not compromise their goalkeeping options. Barring a few judgmental errors, there is no doubt that Almunia has settled into his role and performed credibly. However, if woe befalls his form (think Tim Howard who became a shadow of himself after a loss in confidence) or is injured, the next option is Fabianski. The lad has earned his keep in the Carling Cup but without sufficient experience, he will be buried alive in the pressure cooker environment of the EPL and Champions League.
Fielding Almunia is an act of faith which paid off handsomely for Wenger but to be second time lucky and expect Fabianski to have similar success is a dangerous gamble. Nevertheless, Fabianski is long term good stuff and should be nurtured carefully. That leaves Wenger with his hand tied in keeping Lehmann and tolerating his incessant complaints.
Wolfsburg and Manchester City are said to be interested but Lehmann has not committed. In his latest interview, he expressed an interest to be with Arsenal, even if he stays on the bench, for another Champions League final with Arsenal. Maybe it is to make amends for his sending off early in the 2006 final for a professional foul as Arsenal lost 2-1 to Barcelona.
Lehmann has repeatedly said he feels Wenger “uses a different yardstick to evaluate Almunia” and he has no idea if or when he can get back his place in the Arsenal first-team. But he denied any tension with his boss and insisted both have a good relationship - away from football. Lehman went on to enthuse about London but he dropped a bombshell when he mentioned about a racist undercurrent in the UK.
“There are still some prejudices. My son recently played in a school rugby match and a boy from the opposing team called him a “Bloody German ****”. Of course, that upset him and I believe most journalists here are pleased if I do not play. They have a bit of a binge about it. It might have something to do with the fact I am German.”
Hold on, what is it about the prejudices and journalists? The fact that Lehmann is on the bench is because he is no longer deemed a safe pair of hands and it has nothing to do with a conspiracy theory. He must be living under a shell because racist England just appointed a foreign coach.
Actually, I do have some sympathy for Lehmann after his excellent service rendered to Arsenal. The fact that Germany coach Joachim Loew expects Lehmann to be first-choice goalkeeper for Euro 2008 is the main reason for his edginess in missing out on first team action and match fitness. Still, if he doesn’t stop complaining, his poor attitude will shake the team spirit.
Lehmann aside, overall, it has been a wonderful year for Arsenal and things couldn’t be better as the club revealed turnover of more than £200million, making them Britain’s richest football club. Group operating profits for financial year ending 31st May 2007 were up 274% to £51.2million.
The results prove that the club’s move to Emirates stadium was a sound financial decision - even if it was painful while they endured the transition years without sufficient transfer funds. Cash balances were up to £73.9million, from £35.6million in 2006. This has definitely banished any talk of foreign investment. The current board are confident that no investment is necessary - a valid standpoint judging by the financial report.
Arsenal are a club which has bucked the trend and shown that a club can make pure profits if managed in the right manner and sticking to prudent purchases. The positive impact on the future of the club is immense. Liverpool will point to Arsenal’s success in getting support for a new stadium but sadly, Rafael Benitez is not Wenger when it comes to the transfer market and developing young talents.
Now that the club is on firm financial footing, they have to concentrate on filling up the trophy cabinet, especially in Europe where they are regarded as a minnow. Their last Premier League title was also way back in 2004. To the fans, it is immaterial whether Arsenal are financially stronger than Real Madrid, Manchester United or Chelsea. The directors will rejoice but you won’t see the fans out in the streets celebrating this news.
Wenger has proven his aptitude in winning domestic trophies but he needs to transfer that dominance to Europe. He only has two losing finals in the Champions League in his CV as proof of being there, done that. If Arsenal want to be taken seriously in the European context, which separates the prestigious clubs from the wannabes, then they have to clear the Milan hurdle first.
All the money in the world cannot compensate for another disappointing year if they lose to Milan. The wonderful thing now is that they do not depend on Champions League for financial survival and they go into the competition seeking to lift the cup for prestige alone. That may ease off some of the pressure and bring about a new winner’s mentality.
AC Milan, with their impeccable pedigree, will do well to keep on eye on the young and fearless Gunners.