Presence of Bendtner proves Arsenal are fatally flawed


If you wanted a clue as to where the Premier League title will end up in May, it was there at the Emirates last night.

Naturally, in the aftermath of yet another defeat to Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger was adamant losing out in the League Cup would have no bearing on the bigger prizes this season. After all, the League Cup has never been a trophy he has considered important, preferring to use it to blood younger members of his squad. Even when he made the final against Birmingham City a couple of seasons ago, it was not a trophy he appeared particularly desperate to secure.

Mourinho, on the other hand, has always regarded the competition as a good opportunity to establish a winning momentum in a season. Rather than experiment, he has preferred to win.

Last night, however, was different. Whinging loudly that he only had 48 hours to prepare, the Chelsea boss had complained that the organisers had given him no opportunity to play his best XI. Without the chance to recover properly from their weekend exertions, he was unable to choose the majority of those who had beaten Manchester City on Sunday.

Which meant that both managers – Wenger by habit and Mourinho by circumstance – were fielding a good hand of reserves in the game. And it was in the quality of their second string that we were gifted the chance to assess their chances in the league.

Right now, if both teams did not pick up single injury between now and May, if both sets of players retained their current form, Arsenal would be in with a good chance of pipping their west London rivals and giving Wenger his first trophy since 2005. Any team that can boast Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere, Cazorla and Giroud in the form they are in must be at the head of the queue.

The trouble is, as Wenger knows only too well, football rarely pans out like that. These days in the Premier League, squad depth is a vital pre-requisite. It is who you bring in when fate assaults your first choice that generally determines where you finish in the league. And, as last night showed, Wenger simply cannot touch his arch rival when it comes to additional resources.

In short, the title can be boiled down to this: Juan Mata against Niklas Bendtner.

Resting Oscar and Eden Hazard, Mourinho could call upon the brilliant Spaniard to run his midfield. By contrast, giving Olivier Giroud a well-deserved night off, Wenger could only bring in the ludicrously crimped Bendtner, all top knot and sponsored underpants, a man whose self-regard is in inverse proportion to his achievement.

While Mata duly delivered, Arsenal might have been better served had the manager picked an actual Great Dane. Bendtner had a dog of a game, leading the line with all the skill and subtlety of a wheelie-bin. If that is the alternative, if that is what they have in reserve, watching him stumble and shuffle around, the entire home crowd must have put up a collective prayer that Giroud does not succumb to injury or suspension between now and the spring. Because without him even a top-four finish might be beyond them.

Arsenal watchers have known for some time that things are thinner than a supermodel convention at London Colney. The signing of Mesut Ozil has engendered a feelgood surge that has happily blurred this reality. But successive home defeats to Dortmund and Chelsea have reinforced the truism that winning sides have real alternatives.

Now comes a series of league fixtures that will test the depth of the squad yet further. After a glorious, life-enhancing month or two, the denizens of the Emirates could be in for a nervy run-up to Christmas.

For Mourinho, the issue is rather the opposite. His problem is one of keeping his gifted reserves happy. Mata, a genial and dignified soul, is not one to make his frustrations public. But this is World Cup year. And to get into a squad as competitive as Spain’s he is going to need more than the occasional run out in the Capital One Cup.

Recently Mourinho complained that the British press seem more concerned with who is not in his team rather than who is. It is the whinge of the well-resourced. That he can keep a talent as prodigious as Mata on the bench is testament to his playing strength. He should take the questions as a compliment. It can only be good for Chelsea that he has such impatience in reserve.

How Wenger would like a problem like that. As yet this season there has not been a barrage of inquiry as to how he can prefer Giroud to Bendtner. And after last night, it is unlikely he need waste much time thinking up an explanation.

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