Bleak House

Arsenal's young defender Philippe Senderos has had a torrid start to the season, with Chelsea striker Didier Drogba (No. 15) tormenting him. Here, Senderos watches Drogba slotting home the only goal of the match past Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.-AP Arsenal's young defender Philippe Senderos has had a torrid start to the season, with Chelsea striker Didier Drogba (No. 15) tormenting him. Here, Senderos watches Drogba slotting home the only goal of the match past Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.

THRASHED 4-1 in Copenhagen by a far from irresistible Danish team, England could count themselves lucky indeed that their World Cup qualifying group contained such small fry as their fellow Britons, Wales and Northern Ireland; though fry had to be very small indeed to accommodate an English side with so many blatant faults. Their display last season in the same group at home to a still smaller opponent, Azerbaijan, remained an embarrassing memory.

The bleak situation was compounded by the poor subsequent quality of what should have been a match at the very summit of the Premiership; that between Chelsea, bankrolled by their fabulously rich Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, champions last season by a country mile, and Arsenal, whom they hadn't beaten in the League for 19 games, and who, with Manchester United, seemed their only valid challengers. But what a dismal game it turned out to be, as one sat watching and hoping for something better than sustained mediocrity on the part of both sides. A Chelsea team so awash with famous and expensive stars that they began with their new �20 million plus players — Michael Essien, just arrived from Lyon after prolonged negotiation, and right winger Shaun Wright-Phillips, not to mention �23 million striker Didier Drogba, on the bench. While Joe Cole, an England player in Copenhagen, didn't even get as far as that.

As for Arsenal, it was widely wondered, at the beginning of the season, whether they would be able to make up for the absence of Patrick Vieira, their forceful French international midfielder, sold at last for �13.5 million to Juventus, after seeming for the previous two summers on the point of leaving for Real Madrid.

Arsenal clearly thought the 29-year-old Vieira, who had had a troublesome knee injury, had passed his best, and certainly last season had by no means been one of his best. But who could replace him? Arsene Wenger, the Gunners' French manager, said somewhat airily after a pre-season friendly game at Barnet, that new players did come through, that Vieira himself was little known when nearly ten years earlier he had arrived from Milan. But this was seriously begging the question. Vieira then cost a whacking �3.5 million and was already a France Under 21 international.

As evidenced in the Gunners' several early season games, neither of their cleverly precocious lightweights — teenaged Spaniard Cesc Fabregas or Matthieu Flamini, both of whom were used at Chelsea — has the power or the authority to do what Vieira did. As for their young Swiss international centre back, Philippe Senderos, he has been nothing short of a disaster. The decisive goal he gave away at Stamford Bridge was an utter fiasco, to rank with the two he had given away at Cardiff in the pre-season charity curtain raiser. Or for that matter in the summer tournament played in Amsterdam. Didier Drogba, the big, strong Ivory Coast striker, seems to mesmerise him.

Twice Drogba bustled past him to score in Cardiff. At Stamford Bridge after Drogba, who had come on as a second half substitute, had ineptly blazed wide a concrete chance when allowed clean through, Senderos generously allowed him a second opportunity; lethargically letting Drogba push past him to convert a far from threatening free kick by Frank Lampard, with a fortuitous shin. And just for good or bad measure, a feeble header back to his own keeper Jens Lehmann became an ideal pass for Drogba, who wastefully shot straight at the keeper. Arsenal, in the first half, cleared a header by Chelsea's lively new left back, the Spanish international Del Horno, off the line and they hardly managed a single dangerous attempt of their own. You wondered, not for the first time, why they did not make use of their one truly creative player, Holland's Dennis Bergkamp, who can at least spring the surprises that only an inventive ball player can. Arsene Wenger firmly denied that his current team is in a state of transition but that is certainly how it looks, as they prepare to move into their giant new stadium at the end of this season. Yet Chelsea, with all their costly stars, managed to beat them only thanks to what Wenger properly called "a very cheap goal."

And England? Their abject performance in Copenhagen was, in the second half when they used seven substitutes, shameful to a degree. That Sven Goran Eriksson should yet again pack his second half friendly team with so many substitutes was folly enough. That two of them should have been the ever fallible keeper, David `Calamity' James, and the Chelsea reserve right back, Glen Johnson, bordered on the suicidal. James was as inept as he had been a year earlier in Vienna against Austria, his gratuitous mistakes leading to at least two of the four Danish goals. Johnson at right back showed what we already knew, that he is ever suspect defensively. And why use clever Joe Cole out of position on the left wing?

Yet earlier in the week the new, garrulous incumbent at the FA, Brian Barwick, suddenly and disastrously deciding to break silence, told us that he and Eriksson got on well, which was "significant". Of what you may well ask. Eriksson at first got on awfully well with Mark Palios who rather than boot him out when it was learned he had surreptitiously been talking with Chelsea, boosted his salary to an absurd �4 million.

But it ended in tears when both Palios and the seemingly insatiable Eriksson had enjoyed the favours of the secretary Faria Alam. Palios told Colin Gibson, then head of Press relations, to ask the News of the World to impugne Eriksson but not himself. They refused. Palios went, Eriksson stayed. Moreover, Barwick criticised Alan Smith for refusing an England Copenhagen call; Eriksson, the very next day, said he'd no objection.