Manchester United take on their old title rivals Arsenal this Sunday, in a game which could, temporarily at least, give United a six point lead at the top and end Arsenal’s fading title hopes, or leave United in a precarious situation, awaiting Chelsea’s result against Wigan, with Arsenal closing the gap on us.
With Arsenal fans claiming all season that they have the best team spirit around, presumably based on the ritual hugging and kissing that goes on before and after every game, there have been signs of this being weakened.
The first indicator was when captain William Gallas threw a strop during Arsenal’s 2-2 draw with Birmingham. Clichy gave away a last minute penalty, after strangely running away from the player with the ball in the box, only to go in late and make a challenge. If the referee had the gift of a replay, the penalty would not have been awarded, but this was little concern to Gallas, who bollocked the young fullback. As the penalty was being taken, the mardy Gallas watched on from the half way line. I suppose he can thank his lucky stars Almunia didn’t make a save and the player he should have been marking didn’t put the rebound away, otherwise Arsenal fans would have not been able to defend him in the fashion that they did.
As the final whistle blew, the Arsenal team ran off the field to find out any news on their injured team mate. Eduardo had broken his leg earlier that game and the players obviously wanted the update. Well, everyone apart from Gallas that is, who after kicking the advertising boards, sat in the centre circle crying.
Then there is the ongoing rift between Adebayor and Bendtner, the Arsenal strikers. This first became apparent during Arsenal’s humiliating 5-1 League Cup defeat to bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Adebayor came on as a sub, to salvage some pride rather than a result, and nutted Bendtner in the opposition’s penalty area. The clash left Bendtner with a cut at the top of his nose, with blood staining his shirt. Fortunately for Arsenal, Howard Webb chose not take any action on the fighting players.
Surprisingly, Arsene Wenger didn’t see the incident, but unused substitute Flamini was seen shouting at Adebayor to calm down in the remaining minutes of the game. As the players walked off the field, a member of Arsenal’s medical staff was seen pulling Adebayor back, away from Bendtner.
The rift between Bendtner and the rest of the team has been rather visible since then, with Adebayor choosing to go for goal in situations where he’d be far better suited passing it to his teammate. When Bendtner scored a crucial injury time equaliser against Aston Villa last month, Walcott was the only player on the field who celebrated with him, Adebayor and the rest leaving him to it. When Wenger was asked after the game about this obvious rift, the Frenchman had an out of character response. “I didn’t see that and frankly I don’t know about this. I believe they have a normal relationship.”
This week we have heard more ranting from Arsenal’s crazy keeper Jens Lehmann. He has been benched for much of the season following several unforced errors towards the beginning of the season. Manuel Almunia has taken his place and felt the wrath of Lehmann as a consequence, who has spoken out several times of his dislike for the Spanish keeper. This week, he took it to a new level, hitting out at his team mate and manager.
“I stayed here to win the competition and saw good chances to play but I’ve not had them,” Lehmann said, following Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League after a heartbreaking 4-2 result against the dippers. “It makes me very angry,” he continued. “To be sitting on the bench behind somebody who only started to play when he was 30 is not funny. If the coach had spoken to me before the start of the season, then I would have been able to decide if I wanted to sit on the bench.”
This is hardly the ideal preparation to Arsenal’s most crucial game of the season, but if you think it ended there, you’d be wrong. Today, Almunia has responded to Lehmann’s rant, saying he is very aware of the hatred his teammate feels towards him, but he doesn’t care.
“To have someone here who hates me is just amazing. I know he hates me,” Almunia said. “Every morning I wake up,” says Almunia, “I know it is going to be the same. I’ve had to put up with it every day since he was out of the team and even before then. I wake up and I know what it is going to be like. But I don’t care about him any more. He can say what he likes.”
Just to twist the knife even further, Almunia claims that Lehmann isn’t even the second best keeper at the club. “I come into training and I work with Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone. They are better goalkeepers than him anyway.”
If it wasn’t clear before now, obviously my title is dripping with sarcasm, after all the Arsenal fans talking about their fabulous team spirit in the first half of the season.
When looking at Arsenal’s form, injuries, past week, and bickering players, you’d have to agree that an Arsenal thrashing is on the cards. Unfortunately though, football is never that black and white.