July 26, 2006
Arsene Wenger leads Arsenal to a new ground and into a new era but the Frenchman carries a responsibility this season which goes beyond the boundaries of Highbury and Islington.
Wenger once tackled the domination of Manchester United with some of the most dashing football ever seen on these shores.
Now he has a duty to challenge Chelsea and breathe new life into a competition stifled by the brilliant efficiency of Jose Mourinho’s Blues.
Wenger is not the only manager who carries this burden beyond the actual limits of his job description.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez must also strive to ensure the battle, which starts on August 19, is a genuine race and not another Mourinho procession.
Manchester United and Liverpool were the closest to Chelsea last season but it is Arsenal who will start the season with the freshest optimism.
The Gunners were 14 minutes from winning the Champions League with 10 men in May.
Barcelona came back to thwart them but Arsenal spirits were soon lifted by confirmation that captain Thierry Henry would stay to lead them into the new stadium at Ashburton Grove.
Wenger’s young team performed so well in Europe last year, beating Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the final, that hope was rekindled.
When Henry’s voice crackled over the intercom on the short flight home from Paris, he talked about the future and the great things which lie ahead for this team. This was the first real hint that the club’s record goalscorer was going to resist the temptation of a move to Barcelona.
He will lead Arsenal into their stylish new 60,000-capacity stadium which will help the club compete with wealthy rivals Chelsea and United.
Wenger has always said: “For the club to get to the level of Manchester United and Chelsea, it’s vital we get a bigger stadium.”
Now he has it, the young Gunners must convert the promise they showed in Europe into consistent performances in the Premiership.
Without the experience of Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires, they must show more fight away from home and dispel the theory that Wenger’s team can be kicked out of its stride.
Only by doing this can the exit from Highbury be classed as a new dawn rather than the end of an era.
Wenger said: “I don’t think it will be the end of anything at all. I think it’s the start of a new era because this is a very young team.
“Players like Cesc Fabregas, Philippe Senderos, Mathieu Flamini, Emmanuel Eboue, Robin van Persie and Jose Antonio Reyes have all started with the Champions League final at their age. It is just the beginning for them.”
Liverpool came into last season on a similar wave of optimism, after winning the Champions League in Istanbul and keeping their talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard from Chelsea’s clutches.
Their challenge was blown away, however, by Chelsea’s 10-match winning run over Christmas. The Mersey Reds were not helped by a gruelling schedule including three Champions League qualifying rounds and the World Club Championships in Japan.
They finished the season by losing the battle for runners-up spot to Manchester United but the signing of Craig Bellamy will add extra spark to their strikeforce.
Ferguson’s team recovered from a poor start and a series of long-term injuries last season, to chase Chelsea over the line.
But this does not disguise the fact that they teeter dangerously on a transitional tightrope.
Summer trading will play a vital role in determining whether United close the gap on Mourinho’s champions or slip behind Arsenal and Liverpool.
Tottenham, pipped to fourth by neighbours Arsenal on a day when the pre-match lasagne came under scrutiny, must avoid the Everton syndrome.
David Moyes’ team were unable to capitalise after finishing fourth in 2004.
They crashed out of two European cup competitions at the start of the season and the Scot spent the rest of the campaign trying to piece the shattered confidence of his team back together.
Martin Jol’s Spurs have enough quality to avoid such a dramatic nosedive and are likely to be lurking on the shoulders of the Big Four if any of them slip up.
Everton should bounce back this year, especially if the new-look forward line of James Beattie and Andrew Johnson can gel quickly.
Middlesbrough, under rookie boss Gareth Southgate, are another team capable of moving from the pack if their talented crop of local youngsters can take another step forward.
Aston Villa are in danger of starting the season without a manager, following the departure of David O’Leary, particularly as renewed talk of a takeover may persuade interested candidates to bide their time a little.
Stuart Pearce must also halt Manchester City’s slide and revive his own reputation which suffered as soon as he emerged as a candidate for the England job.
Newcastle boss Glenn Roeder has a tough task to continue last season’s surge without the services of Alan Shearer or Michael Owen, although the signing of Damien Duff will have pleased the Toon Army.
Iain Dowie has the unenviable job of following Alan Curbishley at Charlton and, across the Thames, Alan Pardew set standards at West Ham which may prove difficult to maintain.
Reading will surely be the strongest of the three promoted teams. A long and hard season beckons for both Sheffield United and Watford.
The relegation scrap has been the most exciting aspect of the Premiership in recent years.
Hopefully this time there will be just as much drama at the top when the business end of the season approaches.