'Killer pitch' and food poisoning haunt Asia football tours

Shanghai (AFP) –


There was the infamous Hong Kong "killer pitch", an 11th-hour cancellation of a Manchester derby in Beijing and now Arsenal players struck down with food poisoning in Shanghai.

Add to that searing heat, tropical downpours and long-haul flights, and it is easy to see why Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was left wondering aloud this week whether pre-season tours of Asia are worth all the aggravation.

It is no secret that the trips each summer by Europe's leading clubs are ultimately about making money.

But the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich -- just a few of the teams sweeping through Asia this month, have to balance that with the toll it takes on players at a critical juncture in preparations for the season.

The money men at Arsenal would have shifted nervously in their seats when Wenger -- shorn of several star players suffering food poisoning in Shanghai -- was asked on Wednesday whether this was really what his side needed ahead of the start of another punishing Premier League campaign on August 12.

"That is a good question," he said, smiling.

"But if you ask me is it ideal physically to prepare? I'd say certainly not.

"Has it got other advantages? Yes, because we can meet fans all over the world so that is very positive and the team bonding is easier as well because we live together for two weeks."

The 38 degree Celsius (nearly 100F) heat in Shanghai was "a shock" after Australia, the Frenchman added, after his ailing side somehow drew 1-1 with Bayern despite being outplayed, and then won on penalties.

It does not end there for the Gunners, who started with two friendlies in Australia and were to meet Chelsea in Beijing on Saturday in another exhibition game.

In Hong Kong, where Liverpool, West Bromwich Albion, Leicester City and Crystal Palace are involved in the Premier League Asia Trophy, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp has struggled to keep a lid on his frustrations.

Like most of Asia, the city is regularly pounded with torrential rain at this time of year, plus there is the humidity that can approach 100 percent.

Not to mention the pollution that regularly envelopes China and Hong Kong.

- 'Killer pitch' -

Klopp, who had to shelve one training session in Hong Kong because of the weather, is particularly worried about the pitch at the 40,000-capacity Hong Kong Stadium.

In 2013, the last time the Premier League's Asian showpiece was in Hong Kong, then-Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio memorably dubbed the quagmire "a killer pitch".

Andre Villas-Boas, then Tottenham Hotspur manager, threatened to pull his team out over fears of injury and his defender Jan Vertonghen suffered ankle damage that made him a major doubt for the start of the season.

Then last year Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho was angered by the "very bad" surface at Beijing's so-called Bird's Nest stadium and the derby with Manchester City was called off hours before kick-off.

He said his sole objective was to get his squad home in one piece.

Like Wenger and Mourinho, Klopp appreciates the commercial aspect of the tours, which see local fans decked out in replica shirts camped outside hotels waiting to catch a glimpse of their heroes.

But the German knows he will be judged by football results, not the balance sheet.

"What can I say? I?m a football manager, I?m interested in the game, I?m interested in the quality of the game and different things have influence on the quality," he told reporters in Hong Kong, voicing fears over the pitch there.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore will be keeping his fingers crossed for good weather for the Saturday final round of Asia Trophy matches but is confident the surface will hold up if the heavens open -- rain and thunderstorms are forecast.

"Effectively four years ago we said there was no chance of this thing (tournament) coming back," he admitted on Thursday.