Football: Euro sceptic Wenger prays for time

Norman Fox hears the Arsenal manager stress the importance of rest
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The Independent Online
MANCHESTER United had virtually no chance of winning this season's European Cup. Arsenal, if they become Premiership champions or runners- up, will fare no better next season. Who says so? The Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, who claims that he wants to win "everything in which we compete" but has all but given up on the ultimate European prize even before his team have qualified.

Wenger approaches today's FA Cup semi-final against Wolves at Villa Park convinced that if Arsenal get to the final and win, then next season they can just about cope with a serious challenge in the Cup Winners' Cup, but that domestic fixture congestion and the intensity of competition makes it almost impossible for a modern Premiership club to succeed in the European Cup.

Wenger, the former manager of Monaco, said he believed that United's potential this season was "far greater" than that of his old club, who knocked them out. "In September, October and November, United were the best in Europe; much better than Juventus. They were unlucky - they got important players injured at the wrong time. But the basic problem for an English club in the Champions' League is the fixtures. It is not a problem about standards of play. When you look at United's schedule, and ours, when you have six games in two weeks, that is impossible." He rejects any hope of an English club winning the Champions' League in the present circumstances. "Of course, when Monaco played Manchester United they played their last league match on the previous Friday night. That gave them five days, and they didn't play a midweek game between the two legs. As long as you do not cancel the midweek games between the two legs you do not give yourself a chance."

He says that the opportunities for English teams to win the Cup Winners' Cup are always greater because the matches are now usually played on Thursdays, allowing a five-day recovery period after the last league match. "English teams don't do well in the Uefa Cup or Champions' Cup. You cannot do well unless you are given the maximum chance to win. So I would say that at the moment the protection for English clubs in the Champions' League is not good enough. In the Seventies it was different because the Englishwere by far the best teams in Europe. But things have changed. The Continental clubs have improved. The Premiership is the basis of the sport and every game is so important, but you could add to that some protection, especially in March, for the clubs in Europe by allowing them not to play Premiership games between the two legs. I am not worried by the actual number of games but there are things that could be done - you could start by banning the replay of the FA Cup final, or have a smaller league, or both. I have expressed my views officially, but nothing has happened."

Sympathy for Wenger will be muted by the fact that he has hardly spoken a word of criticism against the players in his squad whose poor disciplinary record has cost the club as much in squad strength as has the present batch of injuries. Nevertheless, this is one occasion on which he and United's manager, Alex Ferguson, are in harmony. They both feel disadvantaged by Premiership pressures.

By the time Arsenal return to Premiership duty next Saturday, United will have played four more games than their closest challengers and may even have stretched their lead to nine points.

Wenger says that he rarely reads much into past history but he is aware that in going for the "double" this season, Arsenal find themselves in a similar situation to 27 years ago when the final weeks of the season brought them a clutch of matches that they had to win to stop Leeds taking the title. If he believes that playing twice in a week when under such pressure is unfair, he should note that Arsenal had to beat Tottenham Hotspur (or draw 0-0) at White Hart Lane on the Monday night before their successful Cup final against Liverpool, and did. He has also conveniently ignored the pressures that today's Juventus (4-1 winners over Monaco on Wednesday) seem to absorb. They beat Milan last Saturday, Monaco on Wednesday and meet Lazio today. They also continued with a full training programme and had only Sunday at rest.

Wenger is moving Arsenal nearer to dealing with that sort of programme, but reluctantly. If he can overcome the problems of winning today's match without Dennis Bergkamp (suspended for the second time this season), Ian Wright, Lee Dixon and, almost certainly, Marc Overmars, he could be on the verge of removing the last shadows of scepticism that still exist among the dedicated disciples of George Graham. Then he might even see himself in the historical perspective which he claims is irrelevant. "I know this is a club with great traditions, but traditions don't help you to win on the day of the game."

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