Fergie's win may scupper a rival title bid for years

Jeff Powell

Last updated at 00:00 05 May 2003

IN the end, it came down to old fashioned British bottle. The perfumed essence of French football, which had enchanted us for so long, lost its fragrance somewhere between the rash uncorking of that beguiling promise of an unbeaten season and home defeat to the rancid losers of Leeds United.

We had smelt it coming since Arsenal started dropping points while Manchester United doggedly refused to give up a pursuit which had seemed at one point as hopeless as the tortoise chasing the hare.

We could never have anticipated how feeble the loss of face would be.

Yesterday, red of complexion and flustered to find themselves lagging so far behind the most honest toilers in the English Premiership, the fashionable Francophiles ran out of le puff against a Leeds team which lost its sense of direction long ago.

At Highbury, of all places. The haggard expression of Arsene Wenger had warned us this would happen.

While Sir Alex Ferguson had been bouncing around in all his bucolic enthusiasm for the chase, Arsenal's maitre d'hote had been looking increasingly stressed by the way a one-horse procession was turning into a chase for the finishing line.

When push came to le crunch, Arsenal did not even have the gall to extend the race to the last lap.

He who had threatened to go through the campaign without losing anywhere had to sit and watch his ensemble go down at home to a team going nowhere.

With Old Trafford threatening to go from financial power to unprecedented wealth, Arsenal find themselves not only evicted as champions but uncertain as to whether they have a new home to go.

United may have done more than regain the Premiership title this weekend.

They may have blown away the only credible challengers to their supremacy over our domestic game for seasons to come.

For Arsenal to lose the crown was one thing. For them to let it slip without a real struggle to the end is to risk the break-up of all that Wenger has been at such pains to construct.

You know how players are. They will abdicate responsibility for this surrender. Robert Pires was already threatening to make a run for the Continent unless Arsenal bought more of the foreign players he deems worthy of sharing his pitch and dressing room.

Now we shall see the stuff of which Thierry Henry is made. If Arsenal win nothing at all this season, at least their leading goalscorer has done the double. He has added the real and historic Footballer of the Year award - that voted by the football writers - to his PFA Player of the Year honour.

Although, personally, I voted for Ruud van Nistelrooy, there were no serious complaints.

Van Nistelrooy should have been anointed by his phenomenal 40 goals and modest manner. Yet Henry has brought worldly style as well as French elan to the Premiership and listening to him had reassured most of us that he is committed to the English way of football.

Now we shall see whether he graces the mantle previously worn by such homespun legends as Matthews, Finney, Wright, Moore, Charlton, Banks, Keegan and Dalglish.

Once Ferguson has the upper hand, he is unlikely to relent. The odds against Arsenal usurping him again would have been pretty long had the title gone to the wire. Now, with Ashburton Grove looking more like a figment of the imagination than a north London Theatre of Dreams, all bets are off.

Fergie will be laughing up his sleeve. Monsieur Wenger will be grimacing in his angst.

Unless Arsene the Inscrutable can become Wenger the Avenger, it may be all over for longer than is good for the game.


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