Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Can Arsène Wenger ensure Arsenal's football is so gorgeous against Chelsea?

Arsène Wenger was bound to feel at least a touch of hubris after watching his team string together 24 passes and then deliver a pay-off so exquisite it would have been staged more appropriately in The Louvre or the National Gallery?

Especially so, you have to believe, if it just happened to be the 1,001st creation of a 14-year regime that has always been imbued, even on the worst of days, with the belief that if football cannot achieve such moments of beauty sooner or later it really isn't worth all the trouble.

Unfortunately it is also hard not to conclude that Wenger became captive to a claim that would have been better left unstated when he declared, "We are equipped to win the Champions League. You know when you see our team play they are not any more tender."

This would be a lot easier to accept if the pass from Cesc Fabregas to Carlos Vela had cut into small pieces the defence of, say, Barcelona or the one Jose Mourinho organised on behalf of Internazionale, rather than that of Bolton Wanderers. Or, if we want be be really brutal, had it ransacked the Chelsea currently being organised by Carlo Ancelotti.

Yes, once again Arsenal are producing aesthetically gorgeous football. Yes, Wenger, even in his most erratic mood and wildest statements, remains a beacon of English football, an icon of so much that will always be the best of the world's most popular game.

But then maybe we should try to be honest. If Arsenal happened to be entertaining Chelsea, as they may well be required to do later in the Champions League, rather than the nifty Portuguese outfit Braga this week, most of us know where the hard money would go.

It would be on a Chelsea side that in recent seasons have taken what has seemed almost sadistic pleasure in dismantling the notion that Arsenal have been doing more than inhabiting the ageing fantasy that one day soon they will find the mixture of élan, nous and mental toughness that in 2004 carried them to an unbeaten league season – the first time the feat had been achieved in England's top flight since Preston North End augmented the gaslight in 1889.

Even before Ancelotti arrived at Stamford Bridge, there were times when even Wenger seemed to be trapped in a growing sense of futility. After Guus Hiddink's superb impact on Chelsea, and a crushing FA Cup semi-final victory at Wembley a year last spring, Wenger looked as though he had lost an argument with an earth mover. Didier Drogba had at times been unplayable and behind him Michael Essien was displaying the rhino power that has re-surfaced so dramatically in this new season's early going.

The Arsenal manager said: "Chelsea are very strong and physically mature. They all know where to stand on the pitch and you find that if one team is going to take advantage of a mistake it is going to be them because they have so much big experience in their side. What they did today was all based on power and efficiency and they did it well. I didn't feel they were dominating the game, but they played to be efficient.

"When you get closer to the trophies this has a big part to play."

When you remember that this was before Florent Malouda found a new dimension and began to build an opening statement about why he might prove to be the Premier League's player of the year, and Drogba finally grasped that the moon and stars were not obliged to constantly revolve around his head, Wenger's latest challenge to end five trophyless years becomes that much tougher than the ones that went before.

Have Arsenal really added sufficient resolve and power to their unbroken artistry? Are they now any stronger than the team that last season subsided beneath the weight of the Chelsea game, which in two games produced five goals without reply? Do they have anything like true defensive security waiting for the next brainstorm of Manuel Almunia?

Bolton's befuddled defenders may say so but there are unlikely to be too many echoes in a Chelsea defence that has conceded one goal in four games and has Ashley Cole, John Terry and Alex in particularly relentless form.

The bruising inflicted by Ancelotti's team of course refused to cow Wenger. He insisted that Chelsea had not dominated the matches. Indeed, Arsenal in many ways dominated the play. Except, that was, in the matter of converting advantages into the vital matter of victory, of taking hold, irresistibly, of those moments which separate winners from losers.

Now as the European action starts, and Manchester United pray before tonight's Old Trafford collision with Rangers that Wayne Rooney can begin to re-cast his future, Wenger again defiantly raises the banner which was carried so close to triumph in the Stade de France in 2006.

You would expect nothing less of the man who carries into the new season not only the hopes of his club but those of the many who see him as a partisan of some of football's most thrilling expression. They read in the articulacy of his football and his words the most resonant language in all of the game. But then they should note the caution that must flag every chapter. It says that the final editing may again be cruel. Especially when Chelsea get their hands on the manuscript.

Does Houllier's arrival at Villa Park herald the dawn of the dead?

Many Aston Villa fans no doubt share the puzzlement expressed here yesterday by Sam Wallace that their new manager, Gérard Houllier, requires two weeks to drag himself away from his bureaucratic chores on behalf of the French football federation.

But then nor will they get a whole lot of re-assurance in the assessment of Houllier's six-year reign at Anfield by his most ferocious critic, Liverpool's and Scotland's combative Ian St John.

Houllier dismissed with some contempt St John's complaint that the Frenchman, after an encouraging start, had presided over a steady decline in the quality and personnel of the team that had once dominated English football.

He disparaged St John's record as a manager, which was unfortunate because the Scot's work in his first job at Motherwell was so impressive it led to the European Cup-winning Jock Stein recommending him to Leeds United as Don Revie's successor. When Brian Clough landed the job, St John then moved to Portsmouth after being told by the owner, the Rolls-Royce-driving John Deacon, that he would have the required budget to carry the famous old club back to the top flight.

He finished up having to walk from his office to make calls from a telephone box near Fratton Park after the club failed to pay its bills. Disillusioned, he made a successful career in television, only occasionally musing on how he might have put to use the budget Houllier was given at his old club.

Maybe the most wounding barb came in St John's 2005 autobiography, when he wrote, "The team of Shankly played with passion and creativity. The team of Houllier represented the very antithesis of that. During one game I scanned the terraces and, most keenly, the Kop. There was silence. It was as though the ground was filled not by the most passionate and humorous fans in football but zombies."

This is perhaps not what Villa's American owner Randy Lerner has in mind.

Hauser tries to revive old game's spirit as boxers behave badly

Thomas Hauser, the distinguished US boxing writer most famous for his studies of Muhammad Ali, has written a novel that delivers to the old game a satirical left hook.

Waiting for Carver Boyd concerns a disadvantaged but thoroughly worthy young man who meets a beautiful girl and is signed up by a scrupulously honest lawyer and a knowing old fight manager, who might have been played by Spencer Tracy if he was still alive. Not only does the lawyer look after the boxer as though he was his favourite son, the girl proves the most exquisitely devoted wife, the hero slugs his way to a world title fight against the formidable Carver Boyd, who makes Mike Tyson seem like the local choirmaster.

George Foreman says Hauser has resurrected the spirit of boxing. Given the recent behaviour of Hatton, Haye and Mayweather, perhaps somebody had to.

Belfast Telegraph


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