Tuesday, April 27, 2010
THE Emirates was restless on Saturday – the end of the season had come two weeks early for Arsenal fans.
This was not how things were supposed to end.
Not that there was nothing to play for – Arsenal are yet to secure third place, while Manchester City are embroiled in a four-way battle for fourth, but you couldn’t help but feel the real action was elsewhere.
Sadly for Arsenal supporters, this is not a new sensation. Ever since leaving Highbury in 2006, each of the four seasons at the Emirates has ended with games like the one on Saturday – nice stadium, nice weather, shame about the football.
All the fans are left with is the feeling of what might have been. How might Arsenal have fared if Robin van Persie had been fit all season?
Could they still be in contention if Cesc Fabregas had not been injured against Barcelona at the start of April? Would a new goalkeeper have made any difference?
That kind of wistfulness was in the air on Saturday, and it did not help when out on to the Emirates pitch trotted the player whose departure appears to have triggered the new silverware-free era at Arsenal; Patrick Vieira.
“We have never replaced Vieira” is the familiar refrain on phone-ins and message boards from fans for whom the former captain seems to have become the embodiment of the glorious, trophy-laden past.
His performance on Saturday may at least have dispelled the notion that Arsene Wenger should have re-signed his compatriot. Vieira looked off the pace, could have been sent off for kicking out at Alex Song and was substituted after just 52 minutes.
Vieira looked a shadow of his former self, which perhaps only added to the sense of just how far in the past Arsenal’s trophy-winning days actually are.
Six years ago he was the captain of the ‘Invincibles’, lifting the Premier League trophy aloft at Highbury. But that is a long time ago, and the lack of power in the old warrior’s legs is not the only difference.
Arsenal are no longer the best team in the land, they are not yet even sure of being the best team in north London this season.
In the end, those back-to-back defeats at Tottenham and Wigan had proved fatal to Arsenal’s title hopes, which were finally extinguished by Manchester United’s win over Spurs on Saturday lunchtime.
City’s manager Roberto Mancini had clearly decided that a point would suffice for his side at the Emirates, with the hope that they see off Aston Villa and Spurs at Eastlands in their next two games.
That seems a risky strategy to say the least, but Wenger will not be too concerned, his mind is only on Arsenal and the Gunners are almost certain of third place after the weekend’s results.
“We are not 100 per cent there yet, but it is 90 per cent,” said Wenger afterwards, knowing Arsenal would have to lose their final two games and Spurs win their remaining three to see the current positions reversed.
If the Gunners can’t take a point from either Blackburn or Fulham, they will deserve whatever fate comes their way – although Saturday’s stalemate, while at least ending a run of three straight defeats, hardly encouraged optimism.
“Somewhere we played with the idea that the championship is lost and with the idea we cannot afford to lose the third place,” admitted Wenger. “It was important to get at least a point and that’s what happened.”
It is hard to trace exactly where things went wrong for Arsenal in the title race, but those looking for a decisive moment could probably point to Kevin Phillips’ injury-time equaliser for Birmingham at the end of March.
Up to that point, the luck seemed to be going Arsenal’s way but that blow, coupled with the major distraction of playing Barcelona twice inside a week, seemed to disrupt the Gunners’ rhythm, and by the time they played in the league again, Cesc Fabregas was ruled out for the season.
The captain’s absence has been keenly felt in the last couple of weeks, and while he may have been powerless to prevent the defeats at Spurs and Wigan, the Spaniard was the player Arsenal needed to unlock a stubborn City on Saturday.
Without him the Gunners foundered on the rock of City’s defence that had Kolo Toure at its impenetrable heart, another reminder for the home fans of a distant, victorious past.
With so little chance of a goal, thoughts drifted to next season. Will it be Arsene Wenger’s last? Will Cesc Fabregas still be here? Will Wenger finally decide to spend some of the transfer budget at his disposal?
In the latest issue of the Gooner fanzine for sale outside the Emirates on Saturday the front cover exclaimed: ‘For God’s sake spend’ above a cartoon of Wenger.
If anything Saturday was a good example of how simply spending money guarantees you nothing. City were as listless as Arsenal, if not worse, despite having invested to the tune of £200million in two years.
But Wenger himself confessed that “one or two areas need strengthening” on Saturday, and it seems the Frenchman is finally ready to bolster Arsenal’s ranks with some experienced players.
He, like the Arsenal fans inside the Emirates on Saturday, does not want another season ending like this.