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Gunners facing strong challenge

Arsenal spent much of the 2008-09 season with grave concerns over their Champions League future. Aston Villa's demise after Christmas may have led to an nine-point cushion for the Gunners in fourth place but that did little to hide the cracks in Arsene Wenger's squad. And this summer there have been plenty of cursory glances over shoulders.

Long since genuine title contenders - they have not finished in the top two since 2005, nor won the league since their Invincibles season of 2003-04 and have now gone four years without a trophy - some have even questioned Wenger, the manager who will clock up 13 years in charge next month.

Arsenal's season was rescued by the last minute signing of Andrei Arshavin after snow storms forced the extension of the mid-season transfer window. The Russian international scored six goals in 12 starts, plus five assists, which included a four-goal haul against Liverpool at Anfield. Without his inspirational performances it is possible that Everton or Aston Villa could still have taken fourth place.

Even though Arshavin has only been at the Emirates for a matter of months it seems his future has already been called into doubt with rumours of interest from Barcelona and that the player is unhappy with the level of tax he pays on his wages in the United Kingdom. For now there is certainly no chance that Wenger would entertain the possibility of a sale.

Arsenal may have made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League last term, but they were truly out-fought and out-thought in the last four by Manchester United. It served to underline the gulf which has opened up between the two sides.

Their FA Cup adventure was also halted at the semi-final stage by another of their old title foes, Chelsea, while the young Guns of the Carling Cup succumbed to Burnley at Turf Moor.

Wenger has already suffered a summer where he has seen players sold for large sums of money, and has seen little in the way of movement the other way.

The sale of Emmanuel Adebayor was very much expected and a £25m fee for a striker who was hardly a crowd favourite, had questionable commitment to the club and a poor campaign last season was good business. But selling him to Manchester City, a club expecting to challenge the Champions League status quo, is dangerous. The Togo international scored 24 Premier League goals in 2007-08 and a repeat of that would pose a threat to his former club.

Wenger was quick to highlight the club's defensive deficiencies last season. The Gunners were well behind the top three in terms of fewest goals conceded, and the signing of Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax for a reported fee of £9m goes some way to addressing that. The view in Holland is that Ajax got every penny the player was worth, and as such there's no guarantee he will immediately fit into Premier League football.

With Kolo Toure following Adebayor to the City of Manchester Stadium you have to wonder if Wenger has strengthened at the back at all. Granted, Toure did not have the best of seasons and at £16m it represents great business. But if that money is not reinvested in the squad then there's every chance the same problems may exist, especially as the Gunners' form improved when Toure was playing regularly.

It has to be a worry that Wenger is not openly looking for further defensive signings and has claimed he will only move into the market should Philippe Senderos complete a switch to Everton. It hardly solves their past problems. Brede Hangeland of Fulham seems the most likely option, if Arsenal decide they can spare the cash.

The likes of Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner, Eduardo and Carlos Vela do not have the power, presence or fitness record to be relied upon to play a similar role to that of Adebayor. And that means while the Gunners' boss may feel he can get away without signing a new defender he must replace the striker.

Marouane Chamakh of Bordeaux has been linked all summer and while Wenger may have baulked at a £15m asking price, the smart money is on a deal being done by the time the transfer window closes.

One bright spot will surely be the emergence of Jack Wilshire, who was superb during the pre-season Emirates Cup and has been lauded by England coach Fabio Capello.

The 17-year-old midfielder, who made one Premier League appearance from the bench, has already shown his talents in the Carling Cup. And with Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky to miss the start of the season he may be thrown in early.

Capello is already considering him for a place in the World Cup squad, despite the fact he has not broken into the first team properly as yet.

Now that there is a growing band of challengers ready to knock Arsenal off their perch, there will be even less room for error at the Emirates. Tottenham, Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester City all harbour hopes of playing among Europe's elite and while all four clubs have improved they will still need Arsenal to falter.

It certainly cannot be said that Arsenal have improved themselves. The defence is hardly stronger and they no longer have a striker capable of leading the line.

After recouping over £40m in recent weeks, Wenger simply has to make further signings before the transfer window closes. He may feel that having a fit Francesc Fabregas for the whole campaign is like a new player, but in truth that papers over the cracks that Arsenal are now a club which has been in decline for several seasons and is in danger of being overtaken by a new hungry breed of Premier League clubs.


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