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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Lost in transition

Two years after being crowned 'The Invincibles', a dramatic decline leaves Arsenal facing an uphill battle just to finish fourth and qualify for the Champions League.

The Gunners are lurching from one crisis to another. The defence has made mistakes its stock in trade, the midfield lacks a leader and a powerhouse while Thierry Henry is no nearer to signing the contract which would see him in red at Ashburton Grove.

Arsenal have already lost nine matches in 2005/06, compared to 14 games in total across the previous four seasons.

And with the huge financial implications of failing to make it into the Champions League, it could be a long road back for a club which made a top-two finish second nature for eight consecutive seasons.

Gunners fans can only hope that the tepid display in losing 1-0 at Anfield will prove to be a watershed, though boss Arsene Wenger has conceded they will not catch Liverpool for third place. Arsenal are left to chase north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the final Champions League berth.

The sale of Patrick Vieira to Juventus and the failure to replace the talismanic figure has revealed an alarmingly soft underbelly. The added loss of Edu at the end of his contract has been magnified too.

Wenger opted to give youth its chance but Francesc Fabregas and Matthieu Flamini have failed to fill the void as opposition have found it all too easy to ruffle their feathers and find space to run through the midfield.

Though the manager tried to address the problem in January he again went for youth in 19-year-old Frenchman Vassiriki Abdou Diaby from Auxerre. Wenger did find the cash for two more players - a future prospect in Southampton striker Theo Walcott plus 21-year-old Togo forward Emmanuel Adebayor.

Add the £2.75m spent on Robin van Persie last summer to the potential £20m on Jose Antonio Reyes 12 months ago and it looks as if Wenger has concentrated on the forward line to the detriment of other areas.

Arsenal have spent £25.5million, rising to a possible £33.75m, on strikers in the past year but remain woefully short in the centre of midfield and defence. And it's not as if the Gunners would be in a position to withstand the loss of Henry should he decide to head for Barcelona before the doors are locked at Highbury for the final time.

Despite the initial reports of Henry's desire to lead the club into their new stadium there remains serious doubts. Henry, the club's all-time leading goalscorer, has won everything but the Champions League at Arsenal and the smart money is on a summer departure to La Liga.

If Arsenal were to get past Real Madrid and go on to win Europe's top prize in Paris in May that may only add further ammunition. What more could there be to achieve? If the opposite happened and they finish fifth in the Premiership to face a season in the UEFA Cup why would a player of his stature stay? It's hard to find a situation in which he will decide to sign a new deal.

Henry said recently: 'It is important Arsenal has the same sporting ambition as me. A lot of teams are ahead of us but it's important to keep (Ashley) Cole. The departure of (Patrick) Vieira did not make things any easier. The board is there to build a competitive team.'

By signing just a one-year contract extension following the ill-advised meeting with Chelsea, England left-back Cole has ensured there will be another wrangle over his future this summer. Losing Cole and Henry just 12 months after Vieira would be unthinkable.

Add to that the poor form of Freddie Ljungberg - after scoring 32 goals in the previous four seasons he hasn't got on the scoresheet once this term - the demise of Robert Pires and the impending retirement of Dennis Bergkamp and you can't help but feel an extended transitional stage lies in wait.

Wenger needs to find the money to replace Vieira with a player of experience and stature and also bring in a central defender to shore up the defence. While at 31 there is time for Sol Campbell to rescue his top flight career there has been a desperate need to strengthen that area for three years - Pascal Cygan and, for much of this season, Philippe Senderos have looked short of the standards required at the top level.

It hurts all the more that Tottenham are showing the sort of ambition that Henry longs for. How the Gunners could do with experience of Edgar Davids, the midfield tenacity of Michael Carrick and the defensive promise of Michael Dawson right now.

While Arsenal remain only four points behind their fierce rivals their form away from Highbury remains an intense worry. Only Blackburn Rovers in the top 12 have lost more on the road. And with nine goals in 13 games, only Everton, West Brom and Birmingham have scored fewer. That Sunderland are on an awayday goalscoring par says more about the Gunners than the Wearsiders.

Spurs visit Highbury with three games to go in the Premiership season, and it may be the match which decides who will take the final Champions League spot. At least by then the only remaining away game is at rock-bottom Sunderland.

Similarly to Liverpool last season, Arsenal have found life in Europe a welcome distraction from Premiership troubles. And just as Everton managed to pip Liverpool to fourth place history could be repeated Spurs, so long the junior club of the rivalry.

However, with UEFA amending their rules following Liverpool's shock success, if Arsenal win the Champions League and Tottenham finish fourth the Gunners would defend their crown and Spurs will be in the UEFA Cup.

Failure for Arsenal to make it back into the Champions League would have a far reaching impact on their ability to compete over the next few seasons.

Dropping into the UEFA Cup will lead to a huge reduction in financial rewards, placing a considerable strain on their ability to meet repayments on Ashburton Grove loans. That in turn will make it very difficult to rebuild the team as an effective Premiership force and return to the Champions League.

It is one of modern football's vicious circles. If Arsenal do not find a quick fix for their problems before the end of the season they could face a painful, prolonged spell in the shadows.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.