Pressure mounts for Arsenal
English soccer's landscape mimics its weather: Things can change quickly.
A decade ago, Chelsea was hardly a force, far from a fancied side domestically. A Russian billionaire instantly altered its destiny, infusing the Blues with wads of cash, and the West Londoners are now perennially title contenders in the Premier League. Grey clouds were replaced by mostly blue skies.
Similarly, a billionaire sheikh has revitalized Manchester City. The Sky Blues ended a 35-year trophy drought last season, which only served to drive their ambition. Summer signings such as 38 million pound man Sergio Aguero have turned City into a serious challenger on all fronts, giving all-powerful neighbor Manchester United something to ponder.
Meanwhile, on a sticky night in Northeastern Italy this past Wednesday, Arsenal lay on the precipice, about to veer into the unknown. But a stunning penalty save from a young goalkeeper helped the Gunners advance past Udinese in Champions League qualifying, giving them a spot in Europe's elite club competition for a 14th straight season.
For all those associated with the team, especially increasingly under-fire boss Arsene Wenger, it was a much needed boost. Most of the summer has brought despair, with drawn-out transfer sagas involving Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri ending with their departures. Nasri joined the City revolution, and suggested upon signing with his new club that Arsenal fans lack passion for their team.
"There has been a little bit of pressure for Arsenal to play in the Champions League, and with the players that have left, the pressure would have increased if we had lost," said Wenger, who has looked like a broken, defeated man on the touchline the past year. "Of course, I am relieved."
Wenger's relief could be short-lived. The Premier League schedule-makers were unkind to Arsenal. Instead of facing, oh, let's say, Wigan or Norwich at home this weekend, a trip to Manchester United in Sunday's late kickoff is the nasty reality -- this after facing Newcastle at St. James' Park to open the season, a match which ended in a 0-0 draw, and a 2-0 loss to Liverpool at Emirates Stadium last weekend. Now comes the EPL defending champion. The timing couldn't be worse, as Arsenal's squad is quite depleted. Playmaker Gervinho, who sparkled Wednesday, and holding midfielder Alex Song and his 19-year-old replacement, Emmanuel Frimpong, are all suspended; starlet Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby remain sidelined with injuries. On Friday came news that influential defender Thomas Vermaelen could miss the game if he fails his fitness test.
Wenger will have to think outside the box -- perhaps starting center half Johan Djourou in a holding midfield role if Vermaelen is fit -- to help plug the holes. Arsenal has lost six and drawn one in its past seven visits, so Wenger & Co. would surely be happy to escape with a point.
Spurs vs. City
Tottenham and Manchester City battled for the fourth Champions League spot in England the previous two seasons. It won't happen this campaign. City's ability to spend means the Sky Blues are a lock to finish in the top three, with Spurs now challenging Liverpool and Arsenal for the final berth.
But City's visit to Tottenham Sunday is the weekend's second-tastiest encounter in the Premier League, behind Manchester United-Arsenal. For Roberto Mancini's men, it marks the first significant test after beating Swansea and Bolton. Tottenham confronts a team from Manchester for the second consecutive week.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp finally bolstered his attack by landing Emmanuel Adebayor on loan from City; Adebayor won't face his parent club. The manager will hope his midfield talisman, Luka Modric, has his mind on the job. Modric wanted to join Chelsea, but Tottenham rejected all offers for the unsettled Croatian international this summer. Modric was omitted from Thursday's clash against Hearts in the Europa League, with a minor hamstring injury the official reason. "He'll stay and play and will be great as he has been every other year," Redknapp told reporters. Samir Nasri, who completed his move from Arsenal this week, will no doubt receive a warm welcome at White Hart Lane on his City debut.
"Samir is a fantastic player," Mancini said. "I wanted him when I was [manager] at Inter, but I got him five years later." --RU
In the meantime, Wenger will look to spend some of the cash from the sales of Nasri and Fabregas, with the transfer window closing next week. He says he's willing to splash out 30 or 40 million pounds on a single player, getting Arsenal fans excited, but then, following the game against Udinese, he didn't guarantee any signings. As he's done in the past, Wenger pointed to quality among players currently out injured and kept faith with the youth, which the Arsenal faithful aren't so keen on. Wenger reportedly made a 7 million pound bid for Bolton's central defender Gary Cahill Friday, which was understandably laughed off by manager Owen Coyle, who called the bid "derisory." Earlier in the summer, Wenger reportedly made an equally curious 10 million pound offer for Everton's Phil Jagielka.
Perhaps Wenger should hang out at a dollar store and see which players drop by.
Predictably, United manager Alex Ferguson gave Wenger his support. Their once cool relationship has thawed, with Arsenal's lack of title credentials in recent seasons surely contributing. Fergie will save the mental warfare for City and Chelsea.
"The work [Wenger] has done in the 15 years he has been at the club is the best in Arsenal's history," Ferguson told reporters. "When Arsenal and ourselves were going head-to-head, it went on for about eight years. The competition is far greater now."
Unlike Arsenal, whose mélange of youth and experience isn't properly balanced, Ferguson has gotten it right, as usual, minus a little worry about keeper David De Gea. Defenders Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, midfielder Tom Cleverley and striker Danny Welbeck -- all with noteworthy Premier League experience before this season -- have blended in well with Wayne Rooney, Nani and another new arrival, the more seasoned Ashley Young, who appears to be a bargain at 17 million pounds. Although Rio Ferdinand is recovering from his hamstring injury faster than expected, Jones and Jonny Evans probably won't lose their spots in the center of defense, while we may expect to see the versatile Smalling out at right back again.
United struggled somewhat against West Bromwich Albion in its league opener, needing a late own goal to secure all three points. Its second-half performance against Tottenham Monday, however, was breathtaking. Welbeck, Anderson and Rooney scored for a comfortable 3-0 win. The display of Welbeck, who set up Anderson with an audacious back-heel, should mean he keeps his spot up front with Rooney, even with Javier Hernandez having recovered from his concussion. Poor Dimitar Berbatov. It doesn't look as if last season's joint top scorer in the Premier League will see much action, as he continues to slip down SAF's pecking order.
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"I have a tremendous problem when it comes to picking a side, but it is the kind of problem I want," Ferguson said.
Tottenham adopted a shoot-on-sight policy Monday -- including a couple optimistic long-range blasts from Rafael van der Vaart -- attempting to take advantage of De Gea's shaky start in a United shirt. Arsenal may follow suit, although given its unwillingness to hoof balls in the box, preferring pretty passes, De Gea won't be overly troubled in that respect.
Sunday's forecast for Manchester calls for mostly sunny skies. Chances are it's the home team who'll be basking in them.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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