LONDON — Manchester United’s 4-2 win over Arsenal at Highbury on Tuesday was not just a victory, it was further proof that the Premiership champion needs a significant overhaul.

Christopher Davies

At worst, Arsenal will almost certainly end the season as the third best side in England, a “failure” the other 17 clubs would love.

Yet the team that won the title in breathtaking, undefeated style last season was a pale shadow of the Invincibles of a year ago, conceding four goals at home for the first time since November 2001.

Manager Arsene Wenger hardly needed to explain the blindingly obvious.

“We concede too many goals to challenge for the Championship,” he said. “We’ve conceded 29 goals now (in 25 games) compared to 26 all last season.

“Then slowly the confidence drops, good habits drop and suddenly you are confronted with a problem.” In a game that had just about everything — the good, the bad and the ugly — United was brilliant, especially during the second half when it played the last 20 minutes without Mikael Silvestre, sent off for head-butting Freddie Ljungberg.

At the back, Rio Ferdinand won many crucial challenges and some made timely interceptions.

Roy Keane rolled back the years with a vintage display in midfield, while in attack Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs led the Arsenal defense a merry dance.

Inevitably, after the bad feeling generated by United’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford in October, the dislike bordering on hatred between the players was there for all to see, the aggravation starting in the tunnel before the kickoff.

My “deep throat” informs me Patrick Vieira told Gary Neville something along the lines that “you won’t kick us off the park as you did last time.” At this point, United’s captain Roy Keane stepped in to tell Vieira to mind his own business which triggered a heated exchange of words between the pair.

Threats were made and incredibly whether David Beckham was good enough to play for Real Madrid was even brought into the argument before referee Graham Poll, who controlled the most difficult of games admirably, told them to “stop it . . . leave it (the bad blood) here . . . don’t take it out on the pitch.”

Poll cautioned six players and sent off Silvestre, but England’s premier referee kept the lid on a match that always bubbled just below boiling point.

He could have shown Vieira and Keane the yellow card in the tunnel, but decided to man-manage the situation, not wanting the two volatile captains to start the game effectively just one caution from a send off.

Wayne Rooney could have walked for excessive use of the f-word, which is becoming a natural reaction from a gifted but temperamental striker when a decision goes against him.

Again, Poll man-managed Rooney, calling Keane over and telling the United captain to “get a grip” on his team-mate.

To show Rooney the red card might have been justified, but a match always one bad challenge away from a mass confrontation between the players did not need any extra encouragement for trouble.

The game was wonderful theater, superb entertainment with no one knowing what might happen next either in a disciplinary or skill sense.

Arsenal and United could meet twice again this season, in the F.A> Cup and Champions League. After Tuesday, everyone except Arsenal supporters will be hoping for at least one more clash between the two clubs that have dominated the Premier League since its inception 13 years ago.

THE MOST remarkable aspect of Chelsea’s £87.8 million loss for 2003-04 was not the £3.5 million paid to chief executive Peter Kenyon or the £20 million severance payments to former employees, including £7 million to fired manager Claudio Ranieri.

It was that 35 employees earned £2 million or more a year.

That means Winston Bogarde, who didn’t play a single game for Chelsea last season, picked up two big ones for merely training. Nice work if you can get it.

Carlo Cudicini, who was first-choice goalkeeper and his backups — Marco Ambrosio and Neil Sullivan — were probably all in the £2 million bracket.

In fact, just about every player in what was a bloated first-team squad of around 30 was on a minimum of £2 million a year.

Roman Abramovich has spent an estimated £300 million since taking over in the summer of 2003 — loose change to a man worth £5.4 billion give or take an oil well or two.

Rich men do not become billionaires by paying employees’ salaries to work for another company but that is what is happening with Hernan Crespo (on loan to AC Milan) and Juan Veron (on loan to Inter Milan) — Chelsea still pays their approximately £80,000 a week salaries NOT to play for them.

Football, of course, operates in a different world to the one outside.

In Abramovich’s first year, the wage bill was £115 million, an increase of 210 percent on the previous year. Chelsea is obviously a good place to work.

A STORY IN a London Sunday tabloid reported that Roman Abramovich, Peter Kenyon, manager Jose Mourinho and super-agent Pini Zahavi met Arsenal left-back Ashley Cole in a central London hotel last week.

The paper has sworn affidavits from witnesses (well, at least one) and the obvious conclusion was that Chelsea was tapping up Cole which is against Premier League rules.

Chelsea has not denied the story and the Premier League cannot act unless there is an official complaint from Arsenal.

Kenyon insisted it is club policy not to comment on “speculation.”

He said: “We’re not going to add to the speculation. We can’t just knock back every story. We don’t want to debate it any further because that is club policy.”

As this was more than a “Chelsea wants Cole” transfer story a denial would not add to the speculation, it would end it.

And Mourinho has often denied reports that Chelsea wants certain players so the “club policy” is a convenient tool of silence.

So did the meeting in fact take place?

The report was written strongly and confidently, leaving no one in any doubt the five were together in the hotel.

However, there are many unanswered questions behind the information supplied by witnesses.

It is understood one daily newspaper previously turned down the story because of the unreliability of the main witness.

While it would be naive to believe tapping up does not go on, why would any club conduct such business in the glare of a London hotel?

Why not someone’s house?

And the way such things are done would not involve the player, only his representative and Kenyon, so why was Jonathan Barnett, Cole’s agent, not present?

Why were Abramovich, Mourinho and Zahavi also there?

Cole, who has 2 1/2 years remaining on his current Arsenal contract, either was or was not at the meeting. There can be no gray areas.

If he was — Barnett has denied the report — it will be hard to convince Arsenal the five were discussing the price of oil in Russia. And Chelsea would be in big trouble, facing a points deduction (which at least would make the Premiership title race more exciting).

The suspicion is that someone, somewhere has made a bit of money out of a newspaper by selling a story that is difficult going on impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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