Gunners’ long Good Friday

HOW fickle is confidence? A week ago, Arsenal were set to conquer the football world. Now they’re having difficulties coping with their own nerves.

While Claudio Ranieri and his Chelsea players enjoy the delirium of Tuesday night's Champions League victory at Highbury, most football observers have focused their ghoulish fascination on a team possibly in the throes of meltdown.

One has to feel a degree of sympathy for Arsene Wenger, who has seen eight months of carefully structured building dismantled in four days.

The next four days could have unthinkable repercussions for his players, himself and everybody's opinion of Arsenal as a footballing force.

You think Liverpool's mindset hasn't already altered ahead of tomorrow's visit to Highbury? Isn't Bobby Robson within his rights to tell his players that, for Newcastle, Sunday's clash with the Gunners is more about tension than technique. The whispers are out there already this Arsenal side have lost their bottle.

Even Patrick Vieira an exception to the charge admitted yesterday: "We are going to get hammered.

When you win, people put you up and when you lose people put you down. That is the way football is and we accept it. That is not a problem what is important is how we react. We will handle it properly."

One wonders. Ian Wright suggested last week that this Arsenal side was infinitely better than the one which completed the double six years ago. Technically, yes, but there are occasions like Villa Park last Saturday and Highbury on Tuesday night where an indomitable spirit helps. It is what has made Roy Keane such a priceless asset for Manchester United.

Spurs manager David Pleat made an interesting observation recently offered his choice of any player, the player would first have to prove his character then his technique.

Pleat said he assessed a player on the bad days, not the good ones. If that be the case, there won't be too many Arsenal players moving across north London.

Of course, fatigue was a factor in Arsenal's defeat to Chelsea, but how big a factor? Arsenal have played 51 games this season, Chelsea 50. Frank Lampard matched, then bettered Vieira's industry at Highbury, and he was lining out for the 55th time this season.

Vieira was honest in his appraisal yesterday: "I think their collective game and their passing was better than ours. As soon as they scored their first goal we looked really down and we found it difficult to respond."

There appeared little wrong with Arsenal's level of endeavour when they ran in at half time with the boost of a goal from their Spanish striker, Jose Antonio Reyes. Reyes, of modest Andalucian stock and practically illiterate until he was 12, had the hunger on Tuesday that some of his more illustrious colleagues lacked.

What underlines Arsenal's suspect stomach is their reaction or perhaps the lack of one to Lampard's equaliser early in the second half.

"The FA Cup semi-final obviously took more out of us than we thought," reasoned Wenger afterwards. Maybe.

But didn't Chelsea play on Saturday also? Three hours later than their London neighbours, in fact. The fascination for neutrals now is whether Arsenal can cling to their Premiership edge. The bookies have doubts.

A rush of money yesterday on Chelsea to win the Premiership sent odds tumbling from 9/1 to 11/2. Arsenal, meanwhile, are now on offer at 5/1 to finish the season empty-handed, far more attractive odds than the ridiculous 1/12 available on them to still win the Premiership.

Undeniably, the next two games will shape their season, and some careers. If Chelsea win both their Easter games, at home to Boro and away to Villa, they may be Premiership leaders by Sunday night.

Wenger's achievements render any criticism churlish, but it is strange that he continues to ignore the virtues of a modern target man, in the Morientes guise.

With Henry out of sorts, there is no possible outlet in the penalty area for the efforts of Ljungberg, Pires or Cole from the flanks.

The indications are he will continue to ignore this option. In the cafes around Highbury, the talk among the Gunners' French followers is that Auxerre defender, Philippe Mexes will be the next major purchase, having agreed an £11m pre-contract deal.

Mexes is a battler, like the defenders he may be joining, Campbell, Toure and Cole. But who will dig in with Vieira in midfield tomorrow when Steven Gerard and co. come calling? Ranieri described Tuesday night as Chelsea's moment of truth. His men passed it with flying colours.

Arsenal's arrives at high noon tomorrow. It promises to be a long Good Friday.

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