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Arsenal-Manchester City match should be a belter

by Christopher Davies

Tiredness?

Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi had it right when he said: “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”

Arsene Wenger should ban himself from mentioning tiredness in the buildup to Saturday’s Premier League heavyweight clash with Manchester City at Etihad Stadium. Wenger has used the T-word many times in recent years as the reason for a defeat and it is borderline paranoia. It is also a way of getting your excuses in first.

Yes, Manchester City played in the Champions League on Tuesday, so it will have 24 hours more to prepare for the match.

Yes, Arsenal had to travel to Manchester on Friday and stay overnight for the early kickoff.

Wenger is not alone in putting the blame on heavy legs or an unfriendly schedule, but in the 1960s, Manchester United would use virtually the same starting XI in its 50-odd game schedule. And the pitches in those days were more ploughed fields than the bowling greens of today.

Talk to players and they want to play in every game. It is managers, usually after a poor result, who cite tiredness. Teams do not win despite being tired, they only lose because of fatigue.

Wenger voiced his concerns about three games in seven days when he said: “We played Everton last Sunday and there was little time between Everton and Naples on Wednesday night. On Saturday morning we play against Man City so for us it’s a very, very heavy schedule. It’s not fair or unfair, there is just no coordination between the television choices. We could have played on Saturday against Everton and Sunday or Monday against Man City.”

With different TV channels broadcasting the various competitions at home and in Europe, liaison is not on the agenda though whatever the result at Etihad, Arsenal will remain top of the Premier League. By how many points we shall see.

City’s 100 percent home record — seven wins, 29 goals scored, two conceded — will face its biggest test against an Arsenal side with a five-point cushion over the chasing pack, City a point further back.

An Arsenal victory would see it with a nine-point lead over City, but the home team goes into the game buoyed by a 3-2 win over Bayern Munich in Alianz Arena. Manuel Pellegrini was unaware that a fourth goal would have seen City top the group and be a first seed in Friday’s Champions League draw, though mathematical shortcomings should not detract from a stunning performance, coming from two goals down to beat the European Champions who had almost forgotten what defeat feels like.

Arsenal also finished runnerup in its group after the 2-0 loss to Napoli, but to qualify from probably the strongest of all the groups, even as runnerup, would probably have been accepted by the Gunners when the draw was made.

Since its loss to Manchester United, Arsenal has won 10 points from its last 12 and if last Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Everton was as good a Premier League game as most observers could remember, there is every reason to expect more of the same against City.

The respective midfields ooze skill and strength, power and precision. For City there is YaYa Toure, almost unstoppable when he runs with the ball, former Gunner Samir Nasri who is playing better than ever, James Milner, who is belatedly being recognized for more than his work-rate, the growing influence of Fernandinho and the consistency of David Silva.

For Arsenal there is Aaron Ramsey who can barely put a foot wrong these days, the sheer class of Mehmut Ozil, Mathieu Flamini’s ability to win and use the ball with equal effectiveness, Mikel Arteta’s cunning, Santi Cazorla’s subtlety and Theo Walcott’s speed.

If City has the edge in attack with Sergio Aguero, the scorer of 18 goals this season, Oliver Giroud has proved a clinical finisher, too, if less prolific.

Both managers will be weighing up their team selections after the midweek, but whoever they choose this promises to be a match that will not disappoint.

* * *

BOOKMAKERS MAKE few mistakes, which is why they are rich. Their customers, who help generate the huge profits, hope for little more than a humble return by correctly picking the winning team, the right result or the first-goal scorer.

British bookmakers can spot any dodgy betting patterns immediately, while even the less controlled Asian market would not give generous odds for something that could be suspicious. They are not cash cows.

Sam Sodje, a former Portsmouth player, was caught on camera by The Sun on Sunday claiming he could arrange for footballers to be cautioned for a £30,000 fee and a sending off for £50,000 to £70,000 to facilitate betting fraudsters. Six people have been arrested, including Blackburn striker DJ Campbell, who protested his innocence.

Sodje said he received £70,000 for a red card last season. I don’t believe him. He talks a good bent game, but the reality is no bookmaker would accept a sizable bet on a player being cautioned or sent off. If I went to any bookmaker in England and said: “Can I have £500 on so-and-so to get a yellow card?” the answer would be “no” and all branches immediately alerted.

How many bets would have to be laid for the Mr. Fixit to even get his 30 grand back let alone make a profit?

You would be fortunate to be able to bet more than £10 on a player being booked. It cannot be done.

Betting in most Asian countries has moved from the back streets to call-centers and smart offices, more Wall Street than deliberate handball.

That is not to say any sport is without an element of corruption. But despite the shock-horror headlines English football, certainly, retains an honesty and integrity which Sodje’s dirty cash cannot buy.

* * *

YOU HAVE TO hand it to Mike Ashley. The Newcastle chairman never seems to run out of ways to make himself even less popular.

His latest idea is to charge the press to interview players, on a bronze, silver and gold tariff.

Ashley usually bans newspapers from St. James’ Park for writing articles he doesn’t like — three local papers are the latest to receive a media red card. It is unlikely those media outlets who still have access to Newcastle will be fighting for the gold — or even the bronze tariff.

Only two of Newcastle’s regular first team have English as their mother tongue. Most of the squad are French-speakers, so how much anyone would pay for an interview with a player whose English is limited remains to be seen, but any negotiations would best be done in Euros.

Maybe the scheme could generate some new slang — a Cabaye could be £100 or a Remy £200.

Most of all I suspect (C)ashley’s idea is doomed to failure. Ironically though not surprisingly, the owner never speaks to the press.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.