The Limey
Friday January 22nd, 2010

Less than eight weeks ago, after his team's 3-0 home defeat to Chelsea, the howls of frustration against Arsène Wenger reached a crescendo. It didn't help that, in addition to losing to Arsenal's North London rivals, the bile thrown at the Frenchman was accentuated by his continued stubbornness in persevering with youth and not spending big money like his rivals around him.

Since Arsenal last won a major trophy -- the 2005 FA Cup -- Wenger has become increasingly accustomed to growing criticism from the press and the Arsenal faithful, particularly because recent transfer windows have seen him pay for little more than a new lawnmower for the Emirates pitch or a new lick of paint for the dressing room walls. Or, worse still, Sol Campbell.

The Chelsea defeat left Arsenal 11 points behind the league leaders, with the Gunners' distant title challenge in tatters. In nine matches since then, Arsenal has won seven and drawn two, and the antagonism towards Wenger has turned to utmost respect as, following Wednesday's 4-2 win over Bolton, his side sits atop the English Premier League.

Arsenal's form, combined with a torrent of news concerning the dire financial straits at other clubs, has seen Wenger's stock rise. The man once routinely beguiled for being tighter than a gnat's chuff is suddenly being championed as a bastion of prudence.

Yes, there was the odd big purchase. But the $15 million to $30 million in fees paid for Thomas Vermaelen, Andrei Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott in the past four years pale in comparison compared to the money being splashed out by the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and even Portsmouth.

Wenger also has been famously ham-fisted when comes to player wages, relatively speaking anyway. His top earners -- Cesc Fàbregas, William Gallas and Arshavin -- make $130,000 per week. That's half the $260,000 Chelsea's top earner, John Terry, pulls in at a club where wages of $160,000-plus per week are common throughout the first team. Similarly, at big-spending Manchester City, the squad is quickly becoming littered with $160,000-plus earners, with the wage bill rising by 50 percent -- not including last summer's big-money signings. Bringing the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tévez, Roque Santa Cruz, Gareth Barry, Joleon Lescott and Kolo Touré into the equation sends that percentage sharply northward.

Over at Stamford Bridge, contract talks between Joe Cole -- who has been injured for eight months and is out of a contract at the season's end -- and Chelsea apparently have stalled amid rumors that Cole is demanding a 30 percent increase in pay to take him in line with many of his teammates. Chelsea, possibly with one eye on Monsieur Wenger's negotiating tactics, is playing hard ball.

Thanks to consistent Champions League qualification, the highest match day income of any EPL club and, of course Wenger's thriftiness, the loans taken out to finance Arsenal's move to the Emirates are quickly growing smaller. Arsenal looks like it has a bright future, and it's not the only team in high spirits this week. Aston Villa overcame Blackburn Rovers 6-4 in a pulsating Carling Cup semifinal second leg, in which the Villans, backstopped by U.S. keeper Brad Guzan, won 7-4 on aggregate.

They'll face the winners of Manchester City vs. Manchester United in the final, a series City leads 2-1 after its home leg this past Tuesday. At evening games, the City of Manchester Stadium is darkened for the pregame Blue Moon anthem. On Tuesday, it seemingly had a soporific effect upon the Citizens who, waking up after 20 minutes, found themselves 1-0 down following Ryan Giggs tapping in a low Antonio Valencia cross that should easily have been cleared by City's makeshift central defense.

United was cruising, dominating from midfield, its away support fervent. The second-leg looked to be a formality. Yet a simple switch from Roberto Mancini saw City come back into the game. Moving Craig Bellamy from striker to left wing allowed Pablo Zabaleta into the center of the park. City began to control the midfield and possession. When Bellamy was pulled back shortly before the break, who else but Tévez dispatched the resulting penalty.

Man. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson's hesitation over purchasing Tévez allowed City to sneak in and buy him last summer. Tensions then further flamed when City erected a huge billboard of the bustling Argentine in Manchester City Centre with the tag line, "Welcome to Manchester," a dual dig at United for being located within the metropolitan area, but not the core City of Manchester, and for having a large proportion of fans from outside the region.

And if relations weren't going to be frosty enough on a cold winter's night, firebrand United captain Gary Neville remarked before the game that Tévez wasn't worth his $40 million transfer fee. Tévez, in his goal celebration, clutched his hand in a "shut your mouth" gesture at Neville. The United veteran responded with a one-fingered salute, to be investigated by the English FA.

But it wasn't until significantly after then, when Tévez headed in the go-ahead goal in the 65th minute, that the United backlash arrived. In the dying minutes, Wayne Rooney desperately pummeled the City defense, demonstrating how much this defeat hurt United.

And while Neville reflects on Tévez terming him a "sock-sucking" (sycophantic) moron on Argentine radio this week, darker clouds hang over Old Trafford. As Arsenal's balance sheet gets healthier, Manchester United's is firmly headed in the opposite direction.

United's parent company, Red Football Joint Ventures, revealed in its accounting from last year that the holding company of Malcolm Glazer and family (who also own the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is indebted to the tune of nearly $1.2 billion. Worryingly for Red Devils fans, the Glazers are now attempting to raise $800 million through a bonds issue at a time when bankers warn that many other firms are competing for similar investment deals.

The documents revealed the Glazers had, since '06, received $37 million from the club in loans and management fees and have made provisions to move ownership of United's Carrington training complex to their holding company and then to lease it back to the club.

United fans are furious at the Glazers for several reasons: the level of debt they took on to buy the club initially, that those debts are increasing and that, except for the $131 million sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, the club would have made a huge trading loss. They're even more livid that, in this time of financial strife at a previously stable club, the owners are seemingly profiteering, particularly if Carrington is sold off.

Such are United's problems that Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks claimed this week that his club's all too obvious difficulties -- in addition to delays in financing its new stadium, it's currently sixth in the EPL and out of the Champions League and FA Cups in a season when it was expected to challenge -- are not as severe as those of United's. In an unusual e-mail to a fan, The Times of London quotes Hicks:

"Our debt is very manageable (see Man U) and we never use player sales for debt service" "Our interest on [$324 million] is about [$25.8 million]. The new stadium will be the game-changer. January is a poor-quality market. The summer window will be big. We are working hard on the new stadium. We have an excellent management team and manager. We know we need more depth on the squad and will address it this summer. We hope to have a stronger second half of the season."

So, bullishness at Liverpool, but what of the other debt-ridden EPL clubs? West Ham looks to be on a much surer footing following canny former Birmingham City owners David Gold and David Sullivan assuming control this week. However, basket-case Portsmouth remains ensconced in woven wicker. The cellar-dwelling club has failed several times this season to pay player wages on time, and has, due to $4.5 million in unpaid debts, had a transfer embargo imposed upon it by the EPL. This week, Udinese reported Pompey to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over money the Italian club claims it is owed for Sulley Muntari, while former player Campbell opened legal proceedings for $2.75 million of unpaid fees and bonuses.

Noel Appleton of London asks whether we think Rafa Benítez will still be at Liverpool's helm next year. Noel, we've been impressed that Benítez, with his record of Champions League success, is being given time to rejuvenate Liverpool and expect him to last out this season. Too often, and increasingly, EPL clubs are hasty in wielding the managerial axe. However, while success in the Europa League could mitigate slightly, a failure to place fourth and qualify for next season's Champions League will probably spell his end.

Interestingly, many Everton fans are hoping Liverpool does qualify. Their thinking is that Benítez will then keep his job and the current owners will have enough revenue to maintain control of the club. They see this scenario leading to long-term mediocrity at their rivals, while a failure to qualify could see Liverpool sold to owners who would invest in better players and a new, potentially more successful, manager.

Chris McCabe of Redondo Beach, Calif., asks about the chances of England and the U.S. both reaching the World Cup quarterfinals. We think it'll be close, but expect England to win Group C, with the U.S. as runners-up. England would then play the runners-up from Group D (Germany, Serbia, Australia and Ghana).

Assuming Germany tops Group D, we'd expect England to beat any of the rest and make the quarterfinals, where it would play the winners of Group A or the runners-up of Group B -- we'd guess France, assuming Argentina wins Group B. We'd expect another England win there, seeing us through to a semis against, most likely, Brazil, and therefore probably a flight home. As runners-up, the U.S. would, we think, play Germany in the second round. We reckon you'll need a Boeing booked after that encounter.

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