Arsene Wenger’s ceaseless pursuit of perfection makes evolution his favored method of team building, but the Arsenal manager faces a close-season revolution as he steels himself for the departure of several key players.
While Nicklas Bendtner’s late goal clinched a 1-0 win over Everton on Sunday that left the visitors sweating over UEFA Cup qualification and emphasized the limitless potential of Wenger’s emerging young side, there was a sense of an era ending in north London.
Wenger confirmed he sent on Jens Lehmann for the final 25 minutes at the Emirates Stadium to allow him one last appearance before his imminent departure after five years at the club.
The German goalkeeper, who Wenger rates as one of the best stoppers in Premier League history, said farewell to the crowd with an extended lap of honor. But it is the other potential departures that could prove more damaging in the long run.
Wenger gave Mathieu Flamini until yesterday to decide if he wants to accept Arsenal’s offer of a new contract. But AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani claimed on Sunday that the French midfielder is set to sign a four-year deal with the Serie A club and his time at the Emirates looks over.
Then there is Inter Milan’s repeated attempts to lure Alexander Hleb to the San Siro. Wenger is furious that the Italian champions publicly admitted their interest in the Belarus winger and is ready to report them to UEFA.
His frustration has been increased by the suspicion that Hleb could be seduced by Inter’s overtures.
Flamini and Hleb both watched from the sidelines on Sunday because of injury and suspension and may not tread the Emirates turf again.
Throw in the likely exit of Gilberto Silva as the Brazilian midfielder searches for more regular action and suddenly Wenger’s squad looks a little thin.
“It was a farewell for Jens, yes,” Wenger said. “I wanted the fans to say goodbye to him because of what he’s done for us. He’s not an easy character but you take that. He’s been fully committed and that’s easy to forget sometimes. Frankly I don’t know what will happen with Flamini. He has an offer on the table that is valid until Monday.”
While Wenger contemplates the changes ahead, his Everton counterpart David Moyes faces one more nervous 90 minutes as the Toffees try to secure another season of European competition.
With 13 minutes left to play at the Emirates, Everton were on course to claim the point they needed to secure fifth place and guarantee a UEFA Cup place.
But Bendtner’s powerful header means they have to avoid defeat at home to Newcastle next Sunday to ensure they finish above Aston Villa, who remain three points behind Moyes’ side.
Moyes has no fears about his players’ ability to get that elusive point.
“I thought we were unfortunate. I’m disappointed we didn’t get a point we need to secure UEFA Cup football. We did enough to get it,” he said.
Everton’s best chances came in the first half. Manuel Fernandes cleverly worked space to send Andrew Johnson scampering clear of Gael Clichy, with Lukasz Fabianksi forced to save with his feet.
But the visitors were made to pay in the 77th minute.
Bendtner’s pass sent Armand Traore away down the left and the young full-back returned the favor with a perfectly flighted cross. Bendtner thrives on such offerings and rose above Phil Jagielka to power his header past the keeper.