Arsenal off the hook

For Arsenal the Premiership is surely gone. European Cup is a tantalising, mirage. Should Wenger go? Surely not. Like many managers he's made mistakes, but what manager could resist such an avalanche of misfortunes? Over to Brian Glanville.

Even Arsene Wenger's most scathing critics had to give his largely rebuilt Arsenal team grudging recognition for its 2-1 defeat of Udinese and hence, breathless, qualification for the Champions League proper. Before the game Udine in north east Italy it had been gloom among commentators and fans alike. “Spend some more money!” the disenchanted supporters had been chorusing, alarmed by the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, two arguably irreplaceable numbers of the midfield, and a radically weakened team at Old Trafford.

There was perhaps a certain poetic justice in Fabregas returning at last to Barcelona, the club which had discovered and nurtured him for the Gunners to sprint him away as a teenager. Even so, when they had picked him up for peanuts, at least they were now receiving a substantial fee, even if it wasn't quite as much as they expected to.

As for the elusive and inventive French international Nasri, his contract would be at an end in less than a year after which he, under the Bosman ruling, will be entitled to leave for nothing. I am sure that Wenger would still like to have kept him but that he was over-ruled, for financial reasons of course, by the club's American owner Stan Kroenke. Meanwhile, it was greatly to Nasri's credit that he should decide to play for the last time against Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium in the midst of his imminent transfer to the plutocratic Manchester City and that he should give excellent, if, for the Gunners, a bitter-sweet display.

Things certainly looked far from promising for the trip to Udine in the first leg at The Emirates, Theo Walcott had been enabled to a very early goal but, thereafter, Udinese, much diminished by the heat of the summer of three key players, but still with the splendid striker, the prolific Neapolitan Antonio Di Natale, looked the better team. Even if, right at the end, Walcott could have made it a well-deserved 2-0.

That evening there was no Jack Wilshere, his serious ankle injury ruling him and his precocious constructive talents out of the Gunners' midfield, as would indeed be the case in Udine. Absent top was powerful Dutch striker, Robin Van Persie, the team's best man for goals, suspended after his controversial expulsion last season against Barcelona. A 2-0 home defeat by Liverpool four days before the Udinese game hardly engendered confidence; but this was a game.

But the suspended Gervinho on the wing, he would torment and frustrate Udinese out there — and the similarly suspended (with far greater consequences Alex song. Both of whom had been expelled at Newcastle, a potentially vulnerable, inexperienced team, with no full backs, obliged to use the teenaged Carl Jackson, signed for third division Charlton Athletic, at left back. In the event he began uneasily but grew in confidence and authority as the game progressed.

But the salient hero of the evening was surely the 21-year-old Polish goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, saviour superbly of that first half penalty kick by Di Natale himself, soaring across his goal he parried the ball over the bar one handed. Interviewed on television after the game he seemed with a smile, to suggest that he might have trashed the rules, by advancing slightly off his goal line, but the save was still spectacular. And, in this instance, too, Wenger was finally praised in his policy, for last season, he was strongly criticised for failing to buy a reliable keeper. Now he has one, bought at a bargain.

Gervinho was no bargain. He arrived for a huge fee from Lille, the more effervescent talent from the Ivory Coast, a classical winger with pace and ball control — yes, wingers do like, not less than, back in the 1930s Arsenal had that dynamic pair, Joey Hulme and Cliff Bastin. The way, in the second half, Gervinho toyed with the full back before going past him at speed, turning to send the ball between the keeper and the near post, was masterly.

It should be recalled that Arsenal's treatment in Udinese observers behind the goals was flagrantly erratic. One gave the penalty kick for supposed hands against the Gunners centre back, Thomas Vermaelen, while at the other end, where he has blatantly elbowed in the face, the so called observer was missing.

Having lost such stars, Wenger would surely be the last to suggest that he has suddenly found a team to compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, which have utterly forted what more than ever, I'd call The Greed Is Good League. Arsene might say, with the American humorist Mark Twain, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” There is no real replacement for Fabregas and his multiple qualities, but when Wilshere is fit to resume, there seems no reason why the Gunners shouldn't have a satisfactorily season, both in and out of Europe with the 19-year-old Emmanuel Frimpong coming through fast if at times, too fast.

But then came Old Trafford and the 8-2 disater. Take Wilshore, Vermeulen, Sagna, Frimpong and Gervinho out of the team and what has Wenger left? Buying a Brazilian left back will hardly solve the problem.

And who can replace Fabregas and Nasri? The Premiership is surely gone. European Cup is a tantalising, mirage.

Should Wenger go? Surely not. Like many managers he's made mistakes, but what manager could resist such an avalanche of misfortunes?