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Apr 19, 2008

Broken promise masks great Gunners season

Arsenal 2 - 0 Reading

In a week when the world seemed to turn irreversibly against Chelsea boss Avram Grant, his opposite number at Arsenal has been licking his open wounds in private.

The rapid and harrowing demise of Arsene Wenger's Premier League and Champions League challenges have left the always articulate Frenchman in a state of despair, yet media criticism of the manager who is destined to win nothing for a third successive season has been polite at best.

Indeed, compared to the savage treatment being handed out to the Israeli coach whose side are still in the title race and preparing for a Champions League semi-final in four days time, Wenger has been given a very comfortable ride and the beleaguered and hapless Grant must wonder what he has done to deserve such a bad press.

Well could it be that while Arsenal's near miss was an example of a side over-achieving in glorious fashion, Chelsea's anticipated demise will be an example of an hugely unpopular club paving the way for its own failure due to incompetent management from top to bottom?

Think back to August and most pundits were suggesting Jose Mourinho's wounded Chelsea would bite back in the Premier League title race, while Arsenal without the departed Thierry Henry were being dismissed as little more than distant outsiders for trophies as they prepared for a season of careful rebuilding.

Wenger, of course, never viewed the forthcoming campaign as a mere stepping stone to future glory and for most of this season, he had many convinced that his apparently impossible dream could become reality. Working with a small and youthful squad, he came within half a dozen games of a miracle and as such should feel some satisfaction with his lot once his current heartache subsides.

Quite why he didn't add to his squad with the transfer budget he has at his disposal has been discussed by this observer on more than once occasion in recent weeks, but the final analysis should reflect that Arsenal have taken great strides forward this season while Chelsea under the hopeless Grant have been slowly sliding backwards.

The 60,000 supporters who packed into the Emirates Stadium for a game that meant less than any of them would have hoped can hardly claim they have been short changed after a season when they have witnessed some glorious football from a side who will surely come again when the necessary enforcements have been added.

Whether the deeply frustrated few who make a trip to Stamford Bridge every week could say they are happy with their lot this term is a whole other question as once again Chelsea have proved that winning isn't everything in this game. The entertainment business is not something Avram Grant and his side feel a part of, but Wenger holds very different views.

If Arsenal and Chelsea finish the season without a trophy, there can be little doubting which set of fans will reflect on the campaign with more fondness and even in a game they must have struggled to find the enthusiasm for, Wenger's boys showed why they are London's chief sporting entertainers.

You can't blame Reading for having something of inferiority complex when it comes to facing Arsenal as they have taken more than a few beatings from Wenger's slick machine during their two-year stint in the Premier League. A determination to give the Gunners the time and space they need to tear you apart has led to Steve Coppell's side being embarrassed on more than one occasion and while they held firm on this occasion for half an hour, it merely delayed the inevitable.

Kolo Toure's pass to Emmanuel Adebayor paved the way for the opening Arsenal goal, with the bog Togo hit-man finishing brilliantly after controlling the ball on his thigh and slotting past Marcus Hahnemann.

After that, it became an afternoon of shooting practice for Arsenal and Gilberto made the most of his rare start by lashing home the second with Reading all too willing to hoist the white flag. A deflection off defender Andre Bikey was enough to defeat the despairing dive of Hahnemann and the big American stopper needed to be at his best to deny Robin van Persie, Toure and Gilberto as they attempted to add a third before the break.

The rousing ovation that greeted the half-time whistle was a tribute to a team who have given so much joy to their supporters this season and even after their ultimate failure to land the trophies they threatened, appreciation is not misplaced. Contrast this reception with the hostile jeers that have regularly confronted Chelsea this season and the above observations of supporter emotions appeared to have been confirmed.

With this game all but won for Arsenal, the second half developed into a sparring match with an air of inevitability hanging over it and the third Arsenal goal always felt imminent.

It so nearly arrived when Van Persie's brilliant free-kick crashed off the angle of crossbar and post after 72 minutes, with Theo Walcott also rattling the woodwork with his shot second later.

Cesc Fabregas looked certain to score as he rounded the Reading keeper seven minutes from time only for desperate defending to deny the little Spaniard, but Reading boss Coppell admitted his side were well beaten by then.

'This game was never going to break our season and none of the sides at the bottom of the table will budget for getting any points against the elite teams in the league,' said Coppell. 'We haven't lost any ground on the teams around us and all we can do is fight on and scrap until the end of the season. If we get two wins out of our last three games, we should be safe and that's our target.'

With games against Wigan, Tottenham and Derby to come, Reading will believe they can get the four points they may need to scramble clear of the drop zone, while Arsenal can already look to next season.

Wenger's verdict on this game was all positive and a week after his depression was there for all to see as his side crashed to defeat at Old Trafford, he is already finding a silver lining to cover up his misery.

'The style of football we have played this season is the best in my time at the club and we can win trophies playing like this I promise you,' declared the defiant Arsenal boss.

'We played with a freedom at the start of the season because there was no pressure on the team and if we can reproduce that sort of football for an entire season, then we can turn a near miss this time into something much more positive next time.

'After the massive, massive disappointments of the last month, I was worried about how we would be able to raise ourselves, but we responded well today. Next season has already started in my mind and I have great optimism for the future.'

Two or three shrewd signings may be enough to turn an already fine Arsenal side into a winning unit. Despair may be all Wenger feels right now, yet hope has not been lost in the manner it already seems to have been at for Grant and Chelsea.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Theo Walcott

On a day when Arsenal struggled to raise themselves, the young England winger gave a committed performance that again confirmed his promise.

FOOD WATCH: Arsenal turned on the style with a fine early morning fry-up to mark this early start.

OLD HABITS DIE HARD: It mattered little that this was a lunchtime kick-off for some Arsenal fans who insisted on swigging out of a pre-match can of extra strength beer on the way to the game. There is something very off about seeing a woman in her mid-50s knocking back lager so early in the day.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Cesc Fabregas' post-match comments that he 'hopes his future is at Arsenal' confirms the fears Wenger has for the future of this team. Time and again the Arsenal boss has insisted his big target for this summer is not new signings, but merely hanging onto the stars he already has and that has to be a priority.

This team can rise from the ashes if he achieves his goal, but all the promise of the last nine months will be lost if the jewels in his crown are snared by his Champions League rivals.

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