Football: Wenger's European goal is all consuming

The Arsenal manager will strengthen his squad as he seeks to realise ultimate dream.
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MUCH AS Arsene Wenger would be eternally grateful to George Graham if today he inspires Tottenham Hotspur to the win or draw with Manchester United which could allow Arsenal to retain their championship title, his hidden agenda is to erase the still strong feeling at Highbury that Graham will go down ahead of him as the club's greatest influence since Herbert Chapman.

Even though Wenger has just signed a new three-year contract and says he has turned down "several" offers from big foreign clubs, these days such apparent signs of loyalty are usually more to do with money than commitment. However, on the eve of Arsenal's final, crucial game against Aston Villa at Highbury, he said that money had never been his motivation. "We all work hard not to be second, not because to be first would bring us more money. Even though the second club also gets into the Champions' League, it's not the same as having the glory of being champions of your own league."

He added that he wanted to remain with a group of players he still believes are not too advanced in years to win the top European trophy within the period of his contract. His cryptic reference to offers from "other clubs" was a clear answer to David O'Leary, the former Arsenal player and now Leeds manager, who suggested that because of the age of a large portion of the squad, Wenger might "walk away" rather than rebuild.

"If other managers knew the sort of clubs I have turned down, they would not say such things. For me the offers were not tempting because the best country to work in is England. It is the only big football country in which a manager can work with freedom. In other countries there is too much confusion about the definition of the job."

He said: "This, without a doubt, is the best team I have managed by some distance," adding that he could not envisage Arsenal "ever having such a good group of players even in the future". Surprisingly, in view of the fact that all the defenders are at the veteran stage, he said: "I still think they have three or four years to go, and they have so much quality that they must win something huge." Obviously, this was a reference to the trophy no Arsenal manager has ever achieved, the European Cup. "We have won everything at home but we must prove that we are strong in Europe. It is the target of my life to win this competition, but unfortunately the longer I wait the more difficult it becomes because there are now more teams in it."

He doubted whether it would be possible "to go out to the market and get a lot better than we have now" but admitted that in order for the club to achieve his European goal it was necessary to obtain two or three good younger back-up players. "The squad has to be strengthened. It's not big enough at the moment, but the quality is good enough." He said he already knew the players he wanted.

As to today's problems of playing at the same time as Manchester United and relying on the club's arch North London rivals to excel, he said: "We have to be as professional as I expect George Graham will be in his match and focus only on our game." However, there are the inevitable rumours that some Spurs players might not be totally determined to stop United snatching the title away from Arsenal. Wenger said he was aware of such talk but consoled himself with the idea that "all professionals want to be winners all of the time".

Neither was he sold on the idea that Tottenham's recent erratic form made a win over United unlikely. "No, I think they played quite well against Chelsea, and they fought very hard against us." How was he coping with the stress of facing the last game of the season uncertain whether Arsenal will be champions or runners-up? "The worst thing in a manager's job is to play for nothing." He hoped that his impression of United looking "a little bit tired against Blackburn and Middlesbrough" was not wrong.

"If United just had to take a point out of this game, that would have been too easy for them. But going for a win is psychologically not the same. There is always more pressure on the team that already has the championship within its grasp because, although they are in the driving seat, they know that they can still lose it. Everyone expects United to win the championship now, so the pressure is more on them than us, but there is also pressure on us to win. When I was at Monaco we were often very close with Marseilles at the end of the season...but not this close."

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