Clark on Sport: November 18th, 2008

 
 

Eating, and then regurgitating his words about Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger, Michael Clark looks in disgruntlement at the Gunners’ dwindling fire.

In the wake of Arsenal’s defeat of Manchester Utd two weeks ago, I must admit that I felt somewhat silly for calling for Arsene Wenger’s dismissal in the last issue. My words looked all the more ridiculous as the Frenchman’s young protégés cruised past Wigan in the Carling Cup. As an Arsenal fan, I was of course delighted. If anything, I had already started thinking about how I could gracefully retreat from my ‘Wenger must go’ perch in this article.

I was ready to throw myself on the readers’ mercy and beg for forgiveness. I was ready to declare that Arsenal would win stacks of trophies this season. I was ready to once again to worship at the altar of the Wenger footballing messiah. Then Arsenal lost at home to Aston Villa last Saturday and all thoughts of grovelling apologies were moot. Michael Clark the Arsenal fan was devastated but at least Michael Clark the sportswriter could glean some satisfaction that his predictive powers were not entirely dysfunctional.

The defeat to Villa effectively ends Arsenal’s Premiership hopes. A nine-point deficit would not normally be insurmountable at this stage of the season but I would think it unlikely that a pugnacious Liverpool and a rampant Chelsea would both falter at the same time. As the result against United showed, Arsenal will challenge the big teams in one-off matches but won’t produce consistent performances against less spectacular opponents. That is Wenger’s failure and no amount of sexy football can atone for poor results on the pitch.

Manchester Utd will of course beg to differ, but I believe that this year’s Premiership is a two-horse race between Chelsea and Liverpool. I keep waiting for Liverpool to collapse but they appear to be resolutely solid this year. Indeed, were it not for a sloppy late collapse against a resurgent Spurs a few weeks ago, Liverpool would now be sitting pretty at the top of the table. Rafa Benitez’ men look more and more like the finished article and will surely end the long league title drought that has afflicted the red half of Liverpool sooner or later.

What can one say about Chelsea? Given the imperious manner of their recent league victories, their loss to Burnley in the Carling Cup was a genuine surprise. Admittedly it was their second/third XI, but any side containing Frank Lampard, Deco and Didier Drogba should dispatch lower league opposition with callous ease. That said, the cup defeat would appear to be nothing more than a blip as Chelsea now top the Premiership and look set to take Europe by storm.

Nicolas Anelka is, at last, making use of his prodigious talents as the league’s top scorer. He has wasted almost a decade of his career since leaving Arsenal in a huff in 1999. A succession of clubs has paid outlandish fees for his services only to be disappointed by his inconsistency and poor temperament. Anelka should be thankful to Sam Allardyce for facilitating his rehabilitation at Bolton before Chelsea came knocking last year.

I’ve always felt that had Anelka stayed at Arsenal, Thierry Henry would never have reached the prominent position he enjoys in world football and would likely have languished in obscure mediocrity. Anelka had everything and threw it all away. It’s heartening to know that even the most profligate among us can earn a shot at salvation.

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Unsurprisingly, Ireland were roundly defeated by the All Blacks last Saturday. The copious amount of column inches devoted to the match in advance might have given naïve people the impression that Ireland had a realistic chance but any notions of grandeur were soon trodden underfoot by the Black Behemoth.

The Irish team that took the field last Saturday were incapable of recording our first victory over New Zealand. I do not mean to criticise Declan Kidney or his selections but rather I am forced to conclude that he simply does not have the players at his disposal to break into the upper echelons of world rugby. Just as opposition politicians can blame the Government for wasting the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, so can we all castigate the Irish rugby establishment for wasting the most remarkable confluence of rugby talent we enjoyed in the early years of this decade.

Ronan O’Gara, Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell deserve a better fate than to be tied to an era that promised much but singularly failed to deliver in terms of silverware.

The failure to secure a confidence-boosting Six Nations Championship during the Gatland and O’Sullivan eras has now come back to haunt Irish rugby. Had that breakthrough triumph been secured, who knows what could have been achieved? The blame should not be heaped upon management alone; the players must accept responsibility for bottling the numerous opportunities that presented themselves.

Ireland will take many years to recover from the disaster that was the 2007 World Cup and poor Declan Kidney will have the unenviable job of leading a team that is becoming increasingly accustomed to defeat. A 48-metre penalty was all Ireland could produce in 80 minutes of rugby. To be flattered by a 19-point margin of defeat, even against the All-Blacks, is chastening for a rugby nation that less than five years looked forward to a golden era. I fear that there will be many dark days to come.

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