The Limey
Friday May 15th, 2009

Before Chelsea had Roman Abramovich's rubles and Rafa Benítez built Liverpool into Champions League winners and English Premier League challengers, Manchester United and Arsenal dominated the EPL throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. On Saturday, the former "big two" face off after having taken contrasting paths in recent years.

Sir Alex Ferguson rode the wave of the José Mourinho-inspired, Abramovich-funded Chelsea successes of the '04-05 and '05-06 seasons to build a new title-challenging squad. The current side -- arguably Ferguson's best ever -- has won the last two EPL titles, a third European Cup and is on the verge of winning a third consecutive EPL title (thereby equaling Liverpool's record of 18 English league titles. Only Barcelona stands between Man U becoming the first team in Champions League history to retain the most Spock-looking of sporting trophies). United goes into Saturday's match on a high.

Contrastingly, the Gunners are like dazed boxers after the beating they received in their past two games against United and Chelsea. A trip to Old Trafford on Saturday to face a United side that's only one point from claiming the EPL title is not the ideal tonic. Arsenal's "We won the league in Manchester" taunts from the '02 season likely will haunt them.

Someone with a name this similar to his team will always be staunchly loyal -- none more so than Arsène Wenger of Arsenal. Since the disbandment of his "Invincibles" side of the '03-04 season (which went the entire season of 49 games unbeaten), the Frenchman has persevered with his project of rebuilding his Arsenal team on the principles of faith in youth and apparent spend-thriftiness.

The Gunners have maintained their position among the top four since the Invincibles season, and they were 14 minutes away from Champions League victory in '06. However, the reality is that they haven't won a trophy since the FA Cup final win over Man. United in '05. Four years is a long time to go trophy-less for Arsenal fans -- their longest title drought in 21 years -- and the locals are starting to down their olive-infused feta ciabattas in disgust, arguing their club's reliance on youth is hampering their chances of silverware.

So is Wenger's faith in his fabled youth project really the reason for his lack of transfer activity, or is it a genuine lack of funds? The Gunners have heavy debts hanging over them in the shape of the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium. According to the Daily Telegraph, Arsenal's debt generates annual costs of around $26 million in interest alone.

Wenger's comments this week hinted that money isn't plentiful at the Emirates. "I have nothing against spending money," he said. "We want to manage this club within its resources. If you want to get the club bust, I'm not the person to do that."

Uzbek billionaire and Jabba the Hutt look-alike Alisher Usmanov, who owns 25 percent of Arsenal's shares, has offered an olive branch to pay off a chunk of the club's debt in order to free up transfer funds. Usmanov's shady past means his presence at Arsenal hasn't been entirely welcome. He was denied a position on the board and isn't allowed to participate in key decisions despite his significant investment. The board will see his offer as a way of garnering favor from frustrated supporters.

Reacting to being harangued by angry fans at a shareholders meeting this week, Wenger gave an impassioned defense of his players, but admitted if the trophy drought continues for another two years, his strategy will have failed.

"They are great players and they will show you that they are great players," he said. "If we do not get there next year or the year after, then you can say this was not the right way."

The clock is ticking, Monsieur Wenger -- not just for you, but for the current board's resistance of Usmanov's financial might.

At the other end of the table, with only two games still to play, it's unusual that no club has yet been relegated, while eight still could be. Although Bolton, Blackburn and Portsmouth probably have enough points accrued, West Brom, Middlesbrough, Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland are battling for their lives.

West Brom, though showing some form, is in last place with 31 points and hosts Liverpool this weekend. With the worst goal differential in the league, it needs at least a draw to make its trip to Blackburn significant. Middlesbrough's Tuesday night defeat of Newcastle conceded ground to its Northeast rivals. Also with 31 points, Boro will need at least four points from difficult games against Aston Villa and West Ham.

Hull, with 34 points, is in free fall and, having faced Manchester United in its last game, will probably need to win at Bolton on Saturday. With only one win in '09, we don't fancy the Tigers' chances and we think, given their remaining schedules, the current bottom three won't do enough to escape.

Should they accrue points, they do have a real chance, though. Newcastle is only outside the relegation zone on goal differential and desperately needs a second '09 home win against Fulham. With the Londoners fighting for seventh and Europa League qualification, this could prove difficult, as will the Magpies' Villa Park visit.

Meanwhile, though already with 36 points, Sunderland visits Portsmouth on Monday, while, as noted above, Pompey still isn't mathematically safe. If Sunderland fails to win there, depending on other results, it may need at least a point from hosting Chelsea -- never an easy task. This weekend's matches will resolve many issues, but it looks like the final day of the EPL season -- Sunday, May 24 -- will be a real nail-biter.

Winning promotion into the EPL next season are League Championship winner Wolverhampton Wanderers; runners-up and local rival Birmingham City; and the winners of the Wembley playoff final between Sheffield United and Burnley. To reach the May 25 Wembley showdown, Sheffield saw off Preston 2-1 and Burnley beat Reading 3-0 over two "home" and "away" legs.

The Championship playoff final generates the greatest financial prize in world soccer. Promotion to the EPL is worth around $75 million a season in additional revenue, predominantly from television rights. Sheff. United, which finished third in the regular season, is favored to beat fifth-place finisher Burnley. Both sides have top-flight pedigrees: Burnley is a two-time English league champion and FA Cup winner; Sheff. United won the top flight one and the FA Cup four times.

United, though, is a much bigger club. Appearing in the EPL as recently as '07, and being centrally located in a 1 million-plus metropolitan area led the club to an average attendance this season almost double that of Burnley's, which hails from a small Lancashire factory town high in the Pennine hills. But don't write off Burnley's inspirational manager, Owen Coyle, whose success at the club this year has been breathtaking. Burnley not only finished fifth in the Championship, but it also dispatched EPL sides Fulham, Chelsea, Arsenal and West Bromwich from knockout cup competitions.

A less glorious episode in Burnley's playoff history came way back in 1898, in what became known as "the game without a shot." Burnley had finished as champions in the Second Division (now the Championship) and entered a "test match" mini-league with Newcastle, which finished as runner-up, and Stoke and Blackburn, the bottom two sides from the First Division (now the EPL). Each team played the others home-and-away, and the top two finishers in the mini-league secured places in the First Division. In the last round of matches, Burnley traveled to Stoke with a draw to secure both clubs top-flight football.

A quagmire of a pitch at the Victoria Ground handicapped play, but not as much as the crowd. Keen to waste precious time, they delayed passing the ball back to the pitch when it entered the stands. The players responded by more frequently sending passes into the crowds of standing fans, onto the roof of the stadium and even into the nearby River Trent. Five balls were lost in the crowd alone. The goalkeepers were hardly involved as the match finished without a shot on goal, but of course with a result that suited both teams.

Such was the scandal sparked by match that automatic promotion and relegation was introduced the next season for the first time worldwide in any football league system.

In our last column, we delved into the murky goings in 1919 that saw Arsenal promoted to the top flight, despite finishing fifth in the second division. No prizes for guessing where the loyalty of Phil Tanis of Michigan lies: "Regarding your comments about Arsenal's dubious rise, anything that relegates Tottenham can be nothing but good."

We were honored to receive an e-mail from Muhammad Ali, but we didn't know he was a soccer fan. Ali wrote in following the debate on why EPL teams are so successful in the Champions League: "English teams tend to play a more physical style of play that other teams are not used to and referees in Europe seem to allow in Champions League games."

Fair point, and also fair to say that bald-headed Norwegian referees officiating Champions League semifinals seem to extend that allowance to Catalan sides, particularly for offenses in the penalty area.

Is Arsenal in meltdown? Is Wenger's policy flawed? Let us know your views on that and fire us any other banter you want to get off your chest to the usual address: thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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