Arsène Wenger said yesterday his Arsenal team are approaching the knockout stages of Champions League “with more belief” than in recent years.
Tonight, they take on his former side Monaco in the last 16 first-leg tie at the Emirates and, after playing Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich, on two occasions, at this stage in recent years, it is understandable that Wenger is feeling more confident.
But despite that, the Frenchman – who was in charge at Monaco for seven years from 1987 to 1994 – is taking nothing for granted. “You never know. It is always a question of circumstances and potential,” he said.
“Barça or Bayern would have been favourites, but we have to deal with what we get. We didn’t do that very well over the last four years, so this is an opportunity for us to do better.”
Arsenal have become part of the furniture in the Champion’s League knockout stages. Unusually for Arsenal, at this stage of the season, they appear to be a team on the up after a difficult start, rather than riding high, nervously waiting for the crash. But to go one better than their best in the competition – a 2-1 defeat to Barcelona in the final in Paris in 2006 – is, Wenger admits, harder than ever. “Now it is more difficult than 10 or 15 years ago because there are more candidates. Certainly there are more in England. But it is still a cup competition.
The players Arsenal nearly signed
The players Arsenal nearly signed
1/7 Harry Kane
Arsenal supporting Harry Kane was on the books at Arsenal but aged eight was allowed to leave, making his breakthrough season at local rivals Tottenham all the more harder to take.
2/7 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
A fee had been agreed for the then 19-year-old but then Wenger requested that the Swede play in a trial match. The mercurial striker replied he didn't 'do auditions' and went on to win league titles with every club he ever played at.
3/7 Didier Drogba
Now a Chelsea legend, Wenger revealed that he could have signed the Ivorian for just £100,000 when the striker was playing for Le Mans. Drogba was watched many times before eventually being overlooked.
4/7 Angel Di Maria
Wenger had the chance to sign Angel Di Maria for absolutely nothing when the Argentinian was a 17-year-old. But work permit issues got in the way and he ended up at Manchester United for £59.7, via Benfica and Real Madrid.
5/7 Yaya Toure
With his brother Kolo at the club at the time, the Ivorian featured for Arsenal in a friendly against Barnet. But work permit issues got in the way and the winner of multiple African player of the year awards eventually ended up at Barcelona and then Manchester City.
6/7 Cristiano Ronaldo
The three-time winner of the Ballon d'Or was apparently shown around Arsenal's training camp at London Colney and even given a shirt with his name on the back. But Manchester United stole in after seeing Ronaldo rip them apart during a friendly with Sporting Lisbon.
7/7 Petr Cech
Arguably the most consistent goalkeeper ever to play in the Premier League was heavily scouted by Arsenal but when the possibility of signing him from Sparta Prague was raised work permit issues got in the way. Cech also claims that Arsenal's chief scout at the time had reservations about his ability.
“That means belief, commitment and being in a good period [of form] when you play the game. We feel as a team that we are on the way up and we can use the Champions League to confirm that.”
Monaco come to Arsenal with the likes of Joao Moutinho and the familiar face of Dimitar Berbatov. The former Tottenham, Manchester United and Fulham striker fully understands the challenge that awaits his team, but is confident they can progress. “We know it is going to be a difficult game and we will be the underdogs, but we came for a good result, have prepared well and hopefully we can achieve it,” he said.
“I spent a couple of years here and have told my team-mates this will be a tough game. Being back here is great for me, playing in this stadium. I have had some good moments here, scored a couple of goals, and also had some bad moments.
“It is nothing new to me. I know the games, I watch them on TV, Arsenal are playing very well. They are a team who work a lot of passes, try to play the combinations, football the way it should be played. They play on the counter with quick players, very technical.
“Maybe this will be new for some of my team-mates, but I have explained to them that it will be difficult, so they need to do their homework, and our coach will prepare us for the game. Hopefully, we can do what we came here to do.”
Berbatov has scored seven goals for Monaco this season and feels settled in the principality. He added: “I play the way I play, you probably know I have never been the quickest player around, but I always try to be quick in my mind.
“When you get a bit older, you gain more experience and you try to put it to good use, to help yourself in different ways and also the young players.”
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