Campbell fired up to tackle Rooney
It took only the briefest moment of thought for Sol Campbell to declare himself fit and ready to play for Arsenal against Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
And in that moment, one of the most unlikely and remarkable stories of the Premier League season unfolded.
Campbell (35) could barely suppress a grin, either.
"I've been training for a long time so if it comes to it, I'll have to be ready -- it's as simple as that," he said, chuckling at the prospect of another, barely credible, stab at the big time. "It's a massive game, a great game to be involved in."
Nothing fazes Campbell, the former England central defender -- not even the prospect of facing Wayne Rooney, the rampantly in-form United striker.
"He's United's talisman," Campbell said. "He's always going to pop up, he's always dangerous. You've got to watch him. In a flash, something can happen and they're in."
Opportunity knocks for Campbell because of the leg injury suffered by Thomas Vermaelen in the 0-0 draw against Aston Villa on Wednesday night.
Campbell replaced Vermaelen during the first half at Villa Park, and showed few signs of rustiness on his second appearance since his 'second coming' at Arsenal. He is likely to partner William Gallas against United.
Vermaelen had a scan yesterday that allayed the worst fears of Arsene Wenger, who was worried that he had suffered a fractured fibula.
"There is no fracture but his injury still has to be assessed," Wenger said. "There is a good chance he will not play on Sunday."
Wenger could opt for Alexandre Song instead of Campbell, but the Cameroon player is more effective in midfield and has just returned from the African Cup of Nations, as has Emmanuel Eboue, after the exit of Ivory Coast. "They are in good shape," Wenger said of the Africans. "Tired, but in good shape."
Not that Campbell relished the circumstances of his introduction at Villa. "It's not nice to come on like that, because of an injury," he said. "But that's when the squad comes into its own. People can come in and the level doesn't drop."
Campbell has improved his fitness during training with Arsenal over the past two months. He has played only one other league match this season: for Notts County in their 2-1 defeat away to Morecambe in League Two in September.
A crowd of 3,335 attended Christie Park that day; a 60,000 sell-out can be expected at the Emirates.
The ill-fated stint at Meadow Lane, with Campbell walking away after that one appearance, is just a bad memory.
"To me, it's the past," he said. "Yeah, it's been a strange old season, but I'm knuckling down now."
After the United game, Arsenal face successive fixtures against Chelsea and Liverpool. When asked if lifting the Premier League trophy for a third time with the North London club was feasible, Campbell laughed again.
"There's a long way to go," he said. "The main thing is to keep focused," he said. "United will drop points, Chelsea will drop points, everyone will. It's going to come down to who gets the run going, the wins, the draws, who keeps ticking along. They're all there, all the top sides. Anyone can win it. You've got to dig in, fight, believe in yourselves."
In contrast to the laid-back, almost horizontal, attitude of Campbell, Nicklas Bendtner exudes all the brashness of youth. The Denmark striker has returned from a three-month lay-off after a groin problem and may also start against United, in place of the injured Eduardo da Silva.
"It is so good to be back," said Bendtner (22). "Everything -- the atmosphere, the smell of the grass -- is just fantastic. And United is the sort of big game you'd love to come back to. Why am I so confident? It is simple. I am a good player."
Meanwhile, Richard Dunne has defended Aston Villa against Wenger's claim that they are a long-ball team.
Villa's Ireland defender pointed out that no team can expect to adopt a passing game to compare with the Gunners' aesthetic approach.
And, despite statistics backing Wenger's observations, Dunne argued that Martin O'Neill's players are not only playing to their strengths, but that their passing is precise -- even if it's longer than that favoured by Arsenal.
Wenger suggested that Wednesday's 0-0 draw at Villa Park was hard-earned, considering how the home team negated his players' strengths with "a very efficient English game with long balls and very physical".
O'Neill was irked by "an appalling insult" and "a ridiculous statement" from a manager with whom he had a frosty exchange during last season's 2-2 draw at Villa Park.
The statistics indicate that all the 'big four' teams play more short passes -- ie, less than 35 yards -- than Villa, who also commit more fouls than any other team in the Premier League apart from Blackburn, Sunderland and Hull.
But, while Arsenal are more adept than anyone in England at playing a continental-style game, passing the ball short and fast through the middle third of the field, Villa's strength going forward lies in the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young and the wingers' crossing ability.
"I think everyone is a long-ball team compared to Arsenal," Dunne said. "They play so much good football it's difficult. We've got pace in our team up front and that's how you use it." (© The Times, London)