At the top of the Premier League, and with all the talk of crisis elsewhere, Arsène Wenger on Monday permitted himself to consider wistfully what he might yet achieve at Arsenal and the one big trophy that has eluded him in 17 years at the club.
The League Cup? Well, yes, he has never won that one but it is the Champions League that consumes all the greats of management. It is those that are the raw currency, one imagines, when the big dogs of European football meet up at their Uefa coaching seminars and it is a curious fact that of all the leading managers currently in charge of clubs only four have won it.
They are Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez, the man whose Napoli side Wenger will face tonight at the Emirates. As for Wenger, he has come within a game of the trophy in 2006, Arsenal’s one appearance in the final. But, against the first great Barcelona team of the modern era, they went into that match, Dennis Bergkamp wrote in his recent autobiography, knowing “the team wasn’t what it used to be”.
Since then Arsenal have reached the last 16 four times as well as two quarter-finals and one semi-final in 2009, when they were beaten home and away by Manchester United. Wenger reflected on the harshness of the draws Arsenal have been given – United, Barcelona twice, Milan and Bayern in the last five years – although they have also been eliminated by PSV Eindhoven (2007) and Liverpool (2008).
“Yes, we would love to win it as it has never been done with this club and we have flirted with it a few times, but I feel that in recent years we have not been helped by the draw,” he said. “Recently we haven’t had the quality to go through.
“It’s difficult to predict because it’s a cup after the group stage. After Christmas it’s about who is available, who is fit and who isn’t. You cannot plan. For two or three years Barcelona were above everyone. In October you knew if [Lionel] Messi doesn’t get injured they will win it.”
Wenger said that he had felt the same way about the Milan team of the late 1980s when, in his only season in the European Cup as Monaco manager, 1988-89, he had watched the team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten and told his assistants, “Don’t worry too much about the quarter-final, I know who will win it!” In the end Monaco went out to Galatasaray.
But this year Wenger sees a little glimmer of hope. He designated Bayern Munich as the “super-favourites” but said that he had at last spotted a weakness in Barcelona, in particular their main man and goal machine, Messi.
“Bayern are the same team as last year. They have won it. They have bought [Mario] Götze on top. As well as that, they know they can do it and have played in the final many times. That might make them a bit favourite ahead of Barcelona as Messi does not seem to have the same consistent presence that he had for years before.
“That is down to muscular problems, when it [the problem] is repeated. The one thing for sure at the top level, today you cannot afford any more to be in and out. You have to be there always. If you are not, in any sport, you cannot make a world record or be the best player in the world if you are not always there in the big games.”
Wenger was unequivocal that Messi is still the world’s best footballer. Yet this year he seems to scent a chance that a club from outside the usual contenders could win. “If we get out of the group I would say we have a chance [of winning the Champions League]. Dortmund [also in Arsenal’s group] reached the final last season, Napoli are a very good team and Marseilles is not easy. If we get out we have a chance. But what we have to show is that we have the strength.”
Ah, the strength of his squad. Thus far in the Premier League they have led the way since that first-day defeat to Aston Villa. Back in those days if Wenger had announced that Robert Pires was training with the team – as he did yesterday – there would have been the gallows humour among fans about him re-signing his former winger, 40 this month. Now, however, the jokes are all being aimed elsewhere.
Wenger said that any talk of the Premier League title was “absolutely ridiculous” after just six games but then in the same breath he said that unless his players believe “100 per cent” that they can achieve such things then there was no point believing at all.
A win tonight against the highest-spending team in Serie A would put Arsenal well on the way to qualification from a very difficult group F, and set them up nicely for the forthcoming double-header against Borussia Dortmund. The demands on Arsenal increase at the start of next month when they play Liverpool (home), Dortmund (away) and Manchester United (away). Then in mid-December they have a run of Everton (home), Napoli (away), Manchester City (away) and Chelsea (home).
Asked the impossible question of which, out of the Champions League or a fourth Premier League title, he would rather win, Wenger paused enigmatically for a moment and then said: “You don’t choose like that. You just want to do well. No matter what I get, I take it.”
There have been seasons in recent years when he would have settled for the League Cup but this year Arsenal are just beginning to dare to dream again.
Wenger said: “The Champions League is something I miss that I will try to fight very hard to fill my [management] CV. But you play against Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid – every year they are there with a chance. You always think, ‘Let’s do it every year, one year it will go for you’. Let’s hope it will be this year. The competition is higher than ever.”
The 17th anniversary of Wenger’s time at Arsenal passed on Monday and it will be of some relief to the club that the rebellious atmosphere on the first day of the season will be long-forgotten on Tuesday. While Benitez has won three major European trophies, Wenger, 10 years older, still has none. Although at the moment just the prospect of being a contender is enough at Arsenal.
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