Title failure puts Wenger at crossroads

WHEN Arsene Wenger rejected Real Madrid’s overtures last summer he conceded that this season would be make-or-break for his Arsenal team.

Five years had already passed since he last hoisted the Premier League trophy aloft, and he was under pressure to prove that his unstinting faith in the likes of Denilson, Manuel Almunia, Nicklas Bendtner and Alex Song was well-founded.

“I am not denying it will be a decisive season,” he said in July. “If we are not in the title race, we will have to build everything again.”

Nine months later and Wenger finds himself at a crossroads. Having seen Tottenham all but end his team’s hopes of winning the league for another year on Wednesday, eight days after the Gunners’ Champions League prospects were skewered by Barcelona, he must decide whether this season’s progress is sufficient to justify sticking to his blueprint. Or whether, with his contract entering its final year, he is ready to gamble by spending all the money available to him on replacing the players who have not vindicated his trust in them.

After a season in which he has been questioned by fans with greater gusto than ever before, Wenger will find it difficult to merely repeat the matra that his team is still young and improving year-by-year.

They may have been in the title race this time, thereby satisfying his minimum pre-season requirement, but only fleetingly did they threaten to win it, despite stuttering opponents, and, if as seems likely, they finish third, it will amount to an improvement of only one place.

Yet the suspicion remains that he will resist drastic changes and pleas to spend vast sums in favour of minor surgery: ditching older campaigners, such as Mikael Silvestre and the out-of-contract William Gallas, fending off suitors of captain Cesc Fabregas, perhaps replacing frequently culpable goalkeeper Manuel Almunia, and strengthening his forward line with Bordeaux’s Marouane Chamakh.

Barca deny pledge not to sign Fabregas
BARCELONA have denied Arsenal claims that they have promised not to bid for captain Cesc Fabregas this summer.

Gunners chairman Peter Hill-Wood said the European champions had given “boardroom assurances” that they would not attempt to sign the Spaniard.

But Barca technical director Txiki Begiristain said: “We have never said that we will not try to sign Cesc Fabregas. If we think that he is necessary for the team, we will go for him.”