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14 Agustus 2008

Steve McClaren's flight of fancy grounded by Arsenal

 FC Twente 0 Arsenal 2
teve McClaren’s brief return to English football in two weeks’ time will be little more than a formality. As a contest, this tie is over. FC Twente gave Arsenal a fright, as McClaren hoped they would, then succumbed, as McClaren feared they would. His aspiration was that the contest would still be live for its London leg, but not even his impressive reserves of optimism will indulge that fantasy now. In reality, this was always going to be Twente’s best chance and they did not take it.
Having been outplayed for large periods of the game, despite Arsène Wenger’s insistence that his Arsenal team were technically superior, the makeshift visiting side snatched two second-half goals and, with them, almost certainly a place in the Champions League group stage. It would take a miracle for McClaren’s team to progress now; and miracles have hardly been his forte of late.
Wenger was genuinely worried about this fixture, with injuries laying waste to his midfield, but he need not have lost sleep. The superiority of the Barclays Premier League is such that Arsenal’s reserves are still too strong for one of the best teams in the Netherlands and the few old-stagers that were sprinkled through Arsenal’s starting line-up pulled them through.
William Gallas, the captain, scored the opener thanks to some laughably inept defending from a set-piece and Emmanuel Adebayor, whose worth if sold would eclipse that of the entire Twente team, slotted in a simple second.
McClaren, by then, looked as powerless as he did on the touchline at Wembley when as England head coach, his energy, like that of his team, was spent. At the end, he just seemed glum. “You don’t get many chances against the top teams in Europe and we had to take one,” McClaren said. “I thought Arsène Wenger looked rattled after about ten minutes, but key moments showed our inexperience in Europe. At times we opened Arsenal up, but we were missing our best two strikers.”
McClaren had told his team that the key word for the night was belief, yet, if anything, this was what was missing from their game. Twente believed that they could play football to match that of Arsenal, they just did not believe that it would beat them. From one end of the pitch to the other, they were assured, confident and technically impressive, as the Dutch always are; in front of goal they went about their mission like Champions League virgins, nervous as hell and too damn quick. Marko Arnautovic, 19, and standing in for Blaise Nkufo, their suspended top scorer, was the worst culprit.
Arnautovic was simply not up to the task. On one occasion he was clean through with only Manuel Almunia, the Arsenal goalkeeper, to beat, on another he was in an excellent position to advance on goal, but panicked both times and did not even come close to scoring. A better team would have punished Arsenal; next season when England’s pre-qualifiers are pitted against clubs of similar status from other strong European nations, a performance such as this could be fatal.
Twente were impressive early on, combative and tight in defence, fluid going forward and when Romano Denneboom slipped Arnautovic in after 35 minutes, they looked certain to score. The unconvincing Johan Djourou, deployed as a result of injuries to Kolo Touré and Philippe Senderos, was sucked in, Gallas played his man onside and suddenly Arnautovic was five yards clear. At that moment, he seemed almost to go weak at the knees, losing his balance and control of the ball, and allowing Almunia to mop up with the minimum of fuss.
Just six minutes later, Gaël Clichy played a desperately poor pass that found Arnautovic on the edge of the area, but this time he did not even give himself time to stumble before wasting the chance with a wild shot. He had another one-on-one in the second half, but by then Arsenal were leading and the locals had long given up hope.
What is certain after this is that Wenger will increase his attempts to sign a central midfield player. He cannot entertain a Premier League campaign with a squad this thin and he may not even get away with it against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday unless he gets bodies back. McClaren was right in saying that the Frenchman looked agitated on the touchline, but Wenger’s blood pressure must have returned to normal once Gallas as good as ran Robin van Persie’s free kick into the net in the 63rd minute.
Twente lost their way after that and a break by Theo Walcott was completed by Adebayor in the 82nd minute.
Wenger left Arnhem in a hurry, like a man anxious to make a few telephone calls. McClaren left knowing that his first test as coach of Twente — albeit a tough one — was on the brink of failure. Twente devotees are known as The Tuckers. For a man once christened “the Wally with the Brolly”, potential rhymes if his luck does not change do not bear thinking about.
FC Twente (4-1-4-1): S Boschker 5 - L Wilkshire 6, R Wielaert 6, Douglas 6, E Braafheid 6 - C Tiote 6 - R Denneboom 8, W Brama 7, T Janssen 6 (sub: J Heubach, 90min), E Elia 6 (sub: S Huysegems, 85) - M Arnautovic 5 (sub: P Gerritsen, 90). Substitutes not used: C Paauwe, R Zomer, N Wellenberg, T Chery. Booked: Janssen.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): M Almunia 6 - B Sagna 7, W Gallas 7, J Djourou 6, G Clichy 6 - E Eboué 5, Denilson 5, A Ramsey 5, T Walcott 6 (sub: M Randall, 82) - R van Persie 7 (sub: N Bendtner, 88) - E Adebayor 6. Substitutes not used: L Fabianski, C Vela, J Wilshere, J Hoyte, K Gibbs. Booked: Denilson, Van Persie.
Referee: A Undiano Mallenco (Spain).