Jim White

Benitez to do the Emirates breakaway

Jim White

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Arsene Wenger has finally admitted it: his Arsenal team do not operate on the same level as Chelsea. He is not talking about tackling, finishing, or even the ability to defend against a breakaway. He is talking finance.

Arsenal, he says, cannot afford the top players in the world because they are unable to offer them the kind of money available at Chelsea, Milan, Madrid or even Manchester. Unlike Chelsea, who operate under a unique set of monetary circumstances, he cannot afford to match the demands of the very best. Which is quite an about turn for Wenger: until now he has always given the impression that the best players in the world were already on the Emirates payroll.

Whatever Wenger might confidently claim, Arsenal's defeat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday ended their chances of winning the Premier League. Again. And while the headline in the Mirror - "From the Invincibles to the Invisibles" - might be a little harsh given that Champions League qualification remains not so much likely as a certainty, there is no question that doing all right in Europe every season isn't really cutting the mustard as an annual aspiration.

For all the pretty football, it galls the Emirates regulars that since their favourites last won a trophy in 2005, United and Chelsea have accumulated eight between them. Sure, it is possible that once it has paid off the debt associated with the new ground, the club might be on its way to developing a business model which will knock the other two utterly unsustainable clubs into the water, but at the moment that is not winning them any silverware.

Of far more significance to Wenger, however, has been the manner in which his side lost against the two teams he considers his only serious rivals. Alex Ferguson smirkingly admitted to his tactical masterplan after the game at the Emirates last week. It was all about counter-attack. But frankly, it is pretty obvious to anyone watching Arsenal: Wenger's team simply can't defend against a breakaway. United have now done them twice in exactly the same way, hammered them with pace after breaking down one of their attacks. And Chelsea followed suit on Sunday. It means you do not have to be Mystic Meg to suggest Rafa Benitez will probably try to do the same thing tonight.

It is clear why it happens: Arsenal simply cannot dominate in the air at their own corners. If Thomas Vermaelen is blocked off, then who else is there? Andrei Arshavin may be many things, but a latter day Frank Stapleton he isn't. Thus all anyone playing them has to do is put someone pacey on the edge of their own penalty box and knowing their centre backs are likely to win any aerial duel, sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

Indeed Wenger's persistence with Arshavin at centre forward is one of his more self-destructive acts of stubbornness. As he has proven with five goals in two games against Liverpool, the Russian is not shy of scoring. But he tends to do so from a position behind the front man, as a deep lying inside forward, the classic number 10. By putting his diminutive frame up against the likes of John Terry or Jonny Evans, the manager is not only ceding breakaway advantage to his opponents, he is restricting his most potentially destructive asset.

In fact Liverpool, who after all have suffered a few reversals of their own this season, will really fancy their chances tonight of taking another step towards overtaking Arsenal towards the comfortable heights of third place. Rafa Benitez has stabilised things at Anfield nicely. A smash and grab victory without conceding would perfectly suit him: there is nothing he values more than a clean sheet.

And where would that leave Arsenal and Wenger? Railing against the injustices of the cheque book, presumably. Indeed, it makes you wonder about the ambitions of those desperately seeking to replace either Arsenal or Liverpool in the top four. For Manchester City, Aston Villa and Tottenham, Champions League qualification has become the be-all-and-end-all of their existence. It is all that matters. Yet one glance at Arsenal, this week's media crisis club of choice, will tell them just getting there is never enough.

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