Battle of the beautiful games
Wenger tries to play down return of Henry to Arsenal as Champions League throws up a mouthwatering quarter-final
The rest of us might see the Champions League draw that pits Thierry Henry against Arsenal as an engrossing story of the prodigal son's return – but Arsène Wenger said yesterday that facing his most celebrated former player meant nothing to him.
The Arsenal manager was in no mood to start the tributes to Henry after Barcelona were drawn to play his club in the pick of the Champions League quarter-finals. Instead he expressed his frustration that a match of such consequence should be boiled down to the "artificial" theme of individuals and their own personal history.
It is a theory that Wenger has warmed to in recent weeks, arguing against what he regards as a media obsession with personalities and feuds. Yesterday he reminded his team that this match was not about Henry's return to Arsenal or Cesc Fabregas playing against the club that nurtured him and would like him back.
Wenger would also rather his team were not affected by the occasion, and dismissed any notion that they could be overawed by the reigning champions of Europe. "Henry comes back? Frankly he has come back already many times to Arsenal," Wenger said. "He has a fantastic time at Arsenal, and we are forever grateful but on the night do you think really we will be focused on how Thierry will feel? We will be focused on our game. [To feel any different] will be disrespectful.
"Personality is part of it but it's not the main thing of it. What people 'sell' now in the game is the artificial part of it but not the main thing in the game. The main part is the quality of the game you can see on the day and will not see maybe for 10 years. Maybe it will be a crap game, nobody knows, but that is what will be interesting."
This was classically grumpy Wenger, clearly fed up with the attention lavished on the recent return of David Beckham to Manchester United and Jose Mourinho to Chelsea. He was in no mood for a similar episode. Beckham famously never got the tribute he craved from Sir Alex Ferguson before Milan's game against United in the previous round and Henry looks destined to the same fate from his old manager.
"It's not a personal game, it's a team game," Wenger said. "It's like the other day with Chelsea and Inter. You get fed up with all these stories [about Mourinho]. Let's see a football game. It bothers me because it is a dictatorship to tell people what is important. And what you tell them is important is not important. It is football that is important.
"What was beautiful in the Chelsea game against Inter was the control of [Wesley] Sneijder and the goal of Samuel Eto'o. That is really difficult to do. Nobody talks about that, it was all this other fuss I get fed up with because it's not football. What is beautiful in this game was the goal Inter scored. All the rest is rubbish."
Wenger might be exasperated but the Champions League, with virtually the same old clubs in contention every year, is much the richer for those famous individuals and their personal odysseys. He would be entitled to be resentful of another more favourable draw for Manchester United, who face Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and then the winner of Lyons and Bordeaux in the semi-finals.
Not only will Arsenal have to beat Barcelona but, to reach the final against United, they will also have to beat the winner of Inter and CSKA Moscow in the semi-finals. Their game against Barcelona is easily the humdinger of the round.
Not just for Henry, or Fabregas measuring up against his old youth team amigo, Lionel Messi. It is also a rerun of the 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona when Wenger's plans were turned upside down in the 20th minute by the debatable dismissal of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. That night in Paris still hurts Wenger who talks about the Norwegian referee Terje Hauge's decision as if the game only finished half an hour ago.
"When a referee makes a decision like that he has to be absolutely sure," Wenger said. "You do not kill a final that one billion people watch if it's not certain. Uefa always gets referees from the 'no-leagues' to take charge of massive games. They are not used to the tricks, and the pace of the countries like England and Spain.
"We had a fantastic season in the Champions League, we only lost one game and that was the final, in the whole season. The game was not there. With 11 against 11, it would have been a fantastic game. We had to take Robert Pires off [for Manuel Almunia]. He still hates me today."
The received wisdom is that Wenger fundamentally changed his tactical approach to 4-3-3 in the summer on the basis of the success enjoyed by Barcelona playing that system last season. Not so, says the man himself, who was anxious to point out was that he was playing 4-3-3 when Barça's coach Pep Guardiola was still in the Barcelona youth team.
"I played 4-3-3 before Barcelona," Wenger said. "I played 4-3-3 at Monaco [1987-1994]. Barcelona did not create that system. That system is a Dutch system. [Johan] Cruyff exported that system. The Dutch used it at the 1974 World Cup.
"I thought it was more suited to the quality of our players. It suits Fabregas, it allows Robin van Persie to play in a free role up front and because we have so many versatile players we are not made for a strict 4-4-2. It gives us more freedom to be creative."
He would at least concede that Barcelona against Arsenal means a chance to compare Fabregas and Messi, two players who could have been playing on the same side had Wenger not convinced the former that his career was better served moving to London. "When I spoke with Fabregas's mother when she brought him here at 16, she said the Barcelona youth team always won 8-0 or 9-0," he said. "They had [Gerard] Pique, Messi and Fabregas so it wasn't a surprise."
While Wenger does not see the Barcelona tie as a reason to get hung up on the personalities, Pique said yesterday that he believed it might well affect Fabregas. "It is obvious that all the attention will centre on him," Pique said. "There is no doubt about that. And I feel sorry for him. I'm sure he will handle it but I think it could be an advantage for us.
"There will be no need to show him around the dressing rooms because he knows the club so well. Cesc is their most important player, there is no doubt about that."
Fabregas will return to action against West Ham today in a game that, should Arsenal win, will take them back to the top of the Premier League. The news on William Gallas is less good for Arsenal. His calf problem is more complicated than first thought and he is currently in the same sports rehabilitation clinic in France that has treated Ashley Cole.
Wenger said that "you never forget completely about a game you lose" and no defeat in Arsenal's history was as big as that one to Barcelona in Paris on 17 May 2006. Funnily enough, he has also not forgotten what he described yesterday as "Thierry's two good chances" that night. But he was not about to dwell on it.
*The one who got away from La Masia, Barcelona's fabled youth academy. Joined Arsenal in 2003 aged 16 after being convinced by Arsène Wenger that he would have more opportunities there. Within a year was in the first team and the Catalan midfielder was in the Champions League final side in 2006 – against Barça.
Born a month after Fabregas and a team-mate in Barça's youth sides, the Argentine prodigy became the youngest scorer in La Liga history in 2005 and was instrumental in the league and Champions League successes of 2006 and 2009. Has scored a number of stunning individual goals and is Fifa World Player of the Year.
Can Arsenal conquer the mighty Barça?
Song must silence Messi
It is not quite true to say, stop Lionel Messi, you stop Barcelona, but it is a good start. The Argentine has a new role, playing off the front man in a roving commission, and is tearing defences apart with his dribbling and passing. To contain him Arsène Wenger may have to look at playing two holding midfielders, one to man-mark Messi, one to maintain position when Messi starts to wander. Alex Song (below) is the most likely candidate to mark. He has matured as a player and this will be a benchmark.
Set-plays are key
Neither side are renowned for scoring from set-plays, in part because they both have relatively few tall players. However, Arsenal's centre-halves are goalscorers (Sol Campbell scored with a header against Barcelona in the 2006 final), Nicklas Bendtner can cause problems, and there is no lack of players to deliver. This may be an occasion to forget about the aesthetics and spend some training ground time on set-plays.
Block the full-backs
Much of Barcelona's attacking power comes from the full-backs, Dani Alves and Maxwell. Arsenal's natural system, with three forwards, could be designed to limit their impact but only if the wide men are prepared to work and be disciplined. Good as Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri are going forward both have a habit of switching off in defence, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky are only marginally better. This is where Sir Alex Ferguson would pick Park Ji-sung , Wenger may have to make do with Emmanuel Eboué.
Gaps should be used
The weakness with Barça's use of their full-backs as auxiliary forwards is that it leaves space in behind. Arsenal need to exploit this. Maybe a job for Walcott.
Waiting game wins
This tie could be a weird experience for an Arsenal side so used to being in possession of the ball. For once they could be doing the chasing. In such circumstances it would be easy for this relatively inexperienced team to be pulled out of position when without the ball, and to become anxious when with it – the failings Arsenal force so often in opponents. Wenger will impress on his team that this is an 180-minute tie and they need to be patient, especially in the home leg. With the away goals rule 0-0 would not be a bad result.
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