Soccer | PREMIER REPORT

Mourinho giving old nemesis Wenger a break on Sunday

by Christopher Davies

It is a measure of the popularity of Mauricio Pochettino with Tottenham fans and the continued displeasure Arsenal supporters have with Arsene Wenger that for the majority of Spurs followers ending a season without a trophy will be more satisfying than winning the second-most important competition in English football would be for the Gunners.

A strange football logic, especially remembering the quote made famous by former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

This is not necessarily the case with fans of Spurs, who played West Ham last night where victory would reduce the gap at the top to one point until at least Monday when Chelsea plays Middlesbrough.

Spurs could still win the title, of course, but only the most wildly optimistic Tottenham follower could believe Chelsea will not secure the nine points it needs to be crowned champion as apart from Boro, other visitors to Stamford Bridge in the coming weeks are Watford and relegated Sunderland.

That means only three clubs can win silverware this season: Manchester United, which has already claimed the League Cup and could win the Europa League, champion-elect Chelsea and Arsenal, which meet in the F.A. Cup final.

If Arsenal beats Manchester United on Sunday and Southampton on Wednesday, it would be in fifth place and on target to finish fourth, which brings a Champions League place.

However, fourth place and winning the F.A. Cup would not bring most Arsenal fans the joy that Spurs supporters have already gained from their club finishing above its north London rival for the first time in 22 years. No trophy, just local bragging rights, and Pochettino has given Tottenham supporters something to crow about even without winning anything.

The battle for third and fourth place is an unusual focus for end-of-season excitement, yet with first and second places pretty well secured the Premier League’s finale is more about the bronze medal than gold or silver. The most intriguing match of the weekend is Arsenal versus United, Wenger versus his old pal Jose Mourinho, who is unbeaten in 15 competitive games against the Frenchman.

Mourinho said he will rest key players Sunday ahead of Thursday’s Europa League semifinal, second leg, effectively conceding fourth place to concentrate on beating Celta — the winners of the competition will be rewarded with a Champions League place next season.

Mourinho, who doesn’t do upbeat these days, has become Moaninho this week, complaining about how many games United has had to play recently. It is no more than the other European semifinalists, not least Celta who have a much weaker squad, and Mourinho knows such a schedule comes with success. Mourinho has a squad packed with top quality international players though it could be a dangerous gamble if he does roll this particular dice because United could find itself missing out on the Champions League on two fronts.

The 1-0 win in Vigo on Thursday — “the result was not as good as the performance,” said Mourinho — was the Groundhog Day sort of game United fans have seen many times this season, the team dominating the match while missing a hat full of chances and needed a superb Marcus Rashford free kick to put the Reds in pole position.

The manager will keep Rashford, who picked up an injury in northern Spain, and three or four others out of the Emirates firing line on Sunday. “It is what I have to do,” he said and it is probably the first favor he has ever done for Wenger.

Vermaelen’s amazing haul

Each time Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi scores a goal they seem to break a new record, but the two giants of world football cannot match the achievements of former Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen with Barcelona.

In two seasons at Nou Camp before joining AS Roma on loan, the Belgium international played in 21 games, yet still managed to collect seven winners’ medals which amounts to one every three matches. Vermaelen, who has been almost permanently recovering from injury over the past six years, probably has his own treatment table at Barca’s training ground.

Remarkably, by simply being a member of the Catalan club’s squad, the silverware kept coming.

Arsenal had paid Ajax £7 million for Vermaelen in 2009, but the injuries, which have severely restricted his playing time if not his future medal collection, soon started. He started just seven league matches in 2013-14 yet astonishingly Barcelona was still willing to pay £15 million for Vermaelen in the summer of 2014.

Understandably, Arsenal was delighted to get double its initial investment for a player who knew the medical staff better than his teammates.

It was football’s equivalent of a lottery win and even Vermaelen admitted: “Since I hadn’t played much, Arsenal was not really reluctant to let me go.”

Vermaelen’s debut for Barca was on hold for almost his entire first season in the Catalan capital. He was injured playing for Belgium against Russia at the 2014 World Cup finals, six weeks before he signed a five-year contract worth £1.5 million a year with Europe’s top club. The hamstring injury was not thought to be serious at the time. Wrong, it proved to be very serious and Vermaelen underwent surgery in December.

He played only 62 minutes of his first season with Barca, his debut coming in the final La Liga game on May 25, 2015, against Deportivo La Coruna. However, despite playing just over an hour’s football in nine months he still collected a league winners’ medal. After Barcelona beat Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final two weeks later, Barca paid Arsenal £3 million as part of the club-related bonuses in the transfer deal even though Vermaelen did not play a single minute of the European competition.

Vermaelen won two La Liga titles (playing spasmodically), two Copa del Rey trophies (played in neither final), a Champions League title (ditto), a UEFA Super Cup (ditto), and a Club World Cup (he played nine minutes). It is unlikely any player in the history of the sport has won so much for contributing so little.

Last August, surplus to Luis Enrique requirements if not Barcelona’s medical room, Vermaelen moved to AS Roma on a season-long loan. His debut in a Champions League qualifier against FC Porto a couple of weeks later lasted 40 minutes, not because of injury, but because he was sent off.

And guess what?

He was then injured and did not make his first Serie A appearance for the Italian club until December.

Vermaelen, 31, has managed a total of 206 minutes in eight months, which hardly represents good value for the £1.5 million loan fee Roma paid Barcelona, effectively covering the player’s wages. This summer he will return to Barcelona where he has two years remaining on his contract.

None of this is his fault, of course. No player wants to be injured. He has become a forgotten man at Barcelona, yet even if he is not fit enough to play for the Catalans — or anyone — Vermaelen is guaranteed the remaining £3 million on his contract.

How he ever passed the fitness test before signing for Barcelona remains one of football’s mysteries.

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

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