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Sunday 24 September 2017

James Lawton: Arshavin not doing Gunners any favours

James Lawton

James Lawton

If there was ever a time for Andriy Arshavin to cast doubts about Arsenal's ability to become Premier League champions, and end six years of frustration, it was not this week. Not with Birmingham City waiting at St Andrew's tomorrow, not with that two-year-old wound still so vivid.

Some might say that it is less a wound than a reproach that may have caused permanent damage to the psyche of a brilliant, but unfulfilled and still vulnerable team.

The details of February 23, 2008, remain so stark we might be talking about a road crash of yesterday.

Sky TV, never slow to exploit the value of sensational footage, decided the images of Eduardo da Silva's broken leg were too shocking to air in the aftermath of Matthew Taylor's ill-timed, lunging tackle. Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger would probably have imposed his own blackout if it had been possible.

Certainly he would have been eager to consign to oblivion the sight of his team cracking up in front of his eyes as they absorbed with horror the extent of the damage suffered by their team-mate.

Later Wenger agreed the long-term effect had been devastating. Arsenal, undermining their critics with consistently brilliant performances, had been reminding English football of both the beauty and the consistency that had come a few years earlier in an unbeaten season -- along with some claims that they had achieved new levels of performance in the domestic game.

But in Birmingham something quite apart from Eduardo's leg was broken. It was part belief in themselves, their competitive sturdiness, and part faith in their destiny. The captain William Gallas went to pieces, in public. Soon after it was easy for Arsenal to believe they had banished their demons when Milan were well beaten in the Champions League at the San Siro.

That, though, was an illusion and now Arsenal are once again facing the questions which will not go away -- and have been almost casually underlined by Arshavin.

The Russian claimed that his team were as many as four players short of a convincing title squad, saying, "The Premier League is very interesting, at least as long as we continue fighting to win it. But without new, experienced players, real stars, it will be difficult to achieve success. Ideally, we need three or four such players and among our young players there should be guys who are not only good at playing, but have real character."

If Arshavin's comments landed on the Emirates Stadium like the contents of a bomb rack, there was good reason why they could be summarised succinctly enough. He might just have said that Arsenal's latest challenge is another fantasy.

On the face of it, this is poor reward for a particularly brilliant run of form. Arsenal bring to Birmingham a run of superb victories, including the composed slaughter of Porto to win a quarter-final place against reigning European champions Barcelona.

In their last six games they have scored 17 goals and conceded three. They have shown nerve and oodles of self-belief. But then they have shown such bursts of form before and not the least of them right up the moment the life was squeezed out of their 2008 challenge at St Andrew's.

Wenger insists that Arsenal are tougher, more balanced now. "Yes," says Wenger, "I believe we can win the title. There have been some discouragements, but the players have stuck to their task brilliantly. They have quality and they have shown that they also have great character and commitment."

Prizes

But then how deeply does it run? The question will not be banished easily, not at least until they reclaim the major prizes which, given the extraordinary levels of individual and collective talent displayed so frequently, seem so accessible.

St Andrew's, no doubt, presents, more than anything, a psychological barrier tomorrow. Despite the huge improvements achieved by Alex McLeish, Birmingham's momentum has flagged with three defeats and only two wins in their last six games, and a goals deficit of 7-10.

The trouble for Arsenal is that however brightly they shine, they cannot quite dispel the shadows that invaded them so pervasively two years ago -- and have a habit of re-appearing when pressure comes.

It is moving towards maximum now with Barca and the luminous Lionel Messi due at the Emirates next week. McLeish is certainly a hard enough pro to seek to exploit any hint that Arsenal's thoughts are racing ahead of the immediate challenge tomorrow afternoon.

From Wenger the requirement is two-fold. He has to insist that his team put aside both the past and the future and live entirely in the present. The past, especially on the field they inhabit just a few days before the greatest challenge that could face any club team, is simply littered with too many doubts. The future, as represented by Messi and Iniesta and Xavi, has too much power to daunt.

What they have to believe is that they are good enough to carry any single day. A diplomatic silence from Andriy Arshavin would also help.

Irish Independent

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