Arsene Wenger faces his biggest challenge in a decade at Arsenal
as he tries to stop his club slipping into Premiership
A season of under-achievement has been followed by the
departures of Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg and the harsh
truth for Wenger is that Arsenal have never been further from being
a title-winning side since he arrived in north London.
With Wenger's future far from settled and a potential hostile
takeover from American tycoon Stan Kroenke in the pipeline, signs
of improvement are thin on the ground as the new campaign looms
Henry and Ljungberg's exits meant just a handful of the
'Invincible' 2004 title-winning team remain and that dramatic
turnover is the root cause of Arsenal's troubles in the last two
Wenger has been forced to take a long-term view of the team's
progress due to a 390-million-pound millstone around his neck.
That sum was the cost of the club's Emirates Stadium which
opened last season and the investment in bricks and mortar has left
Arsenal grateful just to finish in the top four.
Wenger's spending has been curtailed and as a result he has been
forced to use raw rookies to replace the likes of Henry, Sol
Campbell, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp.
The Frenchman's eye for unearthing a gem has at least ensured
Arsenal remain competitive in one-off matches against Chelsea,
Manchester United and Liverpool, but last season's League Cup final
appearance was hardly the summit of their ambition.
The Gunners' faithful have got used to savouring the spoils of
title success during Wenger's reign, but it is hard to see the
Premiership trophy coming to the Emirates Stadium any time
Wenger's competitve fire means he will never concede defeat
before the race has begun, but there is more than a hint of hubris
about his assessment of the current team.
"An acceptable season is, first of all, for Arsenal football
club to fight for the championship," he said.
"Last year, in the end of October and beginning of November when
we were 16 points off the leader, that wasn't acceptable for
"I want my team to fight for the championship and to do well in
the Champions League.
"Last year we showed in spells - in the League Cup - what we
could do, but the League Cup is not a major trophy. The major
trophies are the championship and the Champions League."
It will be fascinating to see how the loss of Henry affects the
club because his move to Barcelona has deprived Arsenal of their
talisman and one genuine superstar.
At least the young guns have a chance to step into the spotlight
now. Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel
Adebayor all have the talent to become superstars and now they have
Newcomers Eduardo da Silva and Bacary Sagna look like prototype
Wenger players. Neither are household names yet but possess enough
potential to suggest they could be sooner rather than later.
Whether Wenger will be around to see his signings bear fruit
He was hurt by the way his friend and vice-chairman David Dein
was forced out and has yet to sign a new contract as he enters the
last year of his present deal.
The prospect of relentless speculation about the Frenchman's
future is not an appetising one for the Gunners, but they will not
pressure Wenger into a decision for fear of provoking him to
Publicly at least Wenger refuses to make excuses, but he knows
the time will come soon when he has to decide whether he has taken
the Gunners as far as he can without major investment.
"We knew we were facing major competition in England with clubs
who invest a lot of money," he said. "We knew we wanted to go a
different way and be a little bit patient.
"But, while we have a young team, we have experience. Cesc
Fabregas has 100 games in the Premiership. I believe we have the
quality and we must show it."
(China Daily via AFP July 31, 2007)