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Sunday, May 3, 1998 Published at 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK



Sport: Football

Gunners' glory
image: [ Arsenal's overseas players have performed well this season ]
Arsenal's overseas players have performed well this season

Arsenal are just 90 footballing minutes away from an unlikely double. Having won the Premiership with two games to spare, they face Newcastle United on May 16 in the FA Cup final.

Arsenal timed their charge for the Premiership to perfection. When Blackburn beat them 3-1 at Highbury on December 13 the Gunners' title ambitions looked dead and buried. But since then, they have not lost a match, drawn just two and set a Premiership record by winning the last ten.

In the meantime, Manchester United, perhaps distracted by their European Cup disappointment, faltered. Arsenal were 11 points behind their northern rivals at the beginning of March, but have not dropped a point since.

And despite goalless draws against Port Vale and Crystal Palace in the early rounds of the FA Cup, a 1-0 victory over Wolves in the semi-final has given them a good chance to win their first double since the 1970-71 season.

Wonder Wenger


[ image: Dennis Bergkamp: player of the year]
Dennis Bergkamp: player of the year
The transformation is even more remarkable because it is manager Arsène Wenger's first full season in charge.

He inherited a team in chaos during the 1996-7 season. Manager Bruce Rioch had departed acrimoniously, fans favourite Ian Wright was in open revolt, and captain Tony Adams had just admitted he was an alcoholic.

But behind the turmoil, Rioch left Wenger with the foundations of today's team. Dutch maestro Dennis Bergkamp, one of the world's best players, had been signed, and the Premiership's meanest defence was still together.

Bold buys


[ image: Marc Overmars: 15 goals so far this season]
Marc Overmars: 15 goals so far this season
Despite risking the wrath of fans by selling Paul Merson to Middlesbrough at the start of the season, Wenger built shrewdly on those foundations. Patrick Viera and Emmanuel Petit have proved to be midfield players in the finest Arsenal tradition, despite their French passports.

They combine Gallic flair with true Gunners' grit, and have both been instrumental in Arsenal's success this season.

Bergkamp was crucial in persuading his friend and fellow Dutchman Marc Overmars to sign for Arsenal, and though he took time to settle, the winger has weighed in with 15 goals as well as numerous assists this season.

But some of Wenger's lesser signings have been equally crucial in the push for the title.

Surprise stars

Arsenal fans would have been forgiven for wondering who on earth Nicolas Anelka, Christopher Wreh and Alex Manninger were when they were signed.

Manninger, at £500,000 has proved to be one of Arsenal's best-ever buys. Bought as a long-term understudy for David Seaman, he was thrust into the limelight when the England goalkeeper was injured in March and kept six straight clean sheets.

In fact his form was so good there were rumours that Arsenal would cash in on Seaman, who is now 34, and sell him to Glasgow Rangers.

Anelka and Wreh were also long-term investments, but got an early taste of first team football because of Ian Wright's injuries and Bergkamp's two suspensions.

At first they looked horribly out of their depth, but even then came up with important goals.

Canny coach


[ image: Arsène Wenger: helped players develop]
Arsène Wenger: helped players develop
Wenger's most significant influence has perhaps been off the field, including impressing on his squad the importance of diet and nutrition.

He has almost certainly extended the careers of players like Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon - all well into their 30s. He has transformed Ray Parlour from a fringe player into a genuine contender for a place in England's World Cup squad.

And Wenger has won another crucial battle - the psychological war with Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson. The calm unflappable Frenchman has been untouched by the pressure which two seasons ago drove the then Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan to launch into an outburst against Ferguson live on television.

Manchester misery


[ image: Manchester United have won the Premiership on four of the last five seasons]
Manchester United have won the Premiership on four of the last five seasons
Manchester United fans could claim that Eric Cantona's retirement, and injuries to key players have cost them the title. True they have been without Roy Keane for most of the season, and Peter Schmeichel, Gary Pallister and Ryan Giggs have all missed key matches, but Arsenal too have had their injury problems.

Tony Adams' season did not start until September, Martin Keown was out until November, Wright has been missing since January, and Seaman and Bergkamp have both suffered injuries and suspensions.

Vital experience

Arsenal held one crucial advantage over Newcastle - Manchester United's main challengers in recent seasons - which is that they had been in this position before. In 1989 they went to Liverpool needing to win 2-0 to clinch the championship, and famously they did it - Michael Thomas scoring with practically the last kick of the game.

Arsenal's defence that day included Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. Ten minutes before the end of the 4-0 victory over Everton which brought them the 1998 title, Wenger brought off Wreh, and sent Bould on.

It was a lovely managerial touch which meant all the members of the defence which won the 1988-89 First Division championship were on the pitch as Arsenal clinched the 1997-98 Premiership crown.
 





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