Monaco vs Arsenal preview: Arsene Wenger gambles to beat the odds – and history

Arsenal must go on the attack to achieve Champions League first by overturning a two-goal home defeat from the first leg

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The Independent Football

It is hard to escape the image of Arsene Wenger at the Stade Louis II in Monaco and a picture of the Frenchman in his 40s on the walls of the tunnel will be one of the last things his players see tomorrow before they walk out on the pitch to try to achieve something unprecedented in Champions League history.

The task facing Arsenal does not add up to the ideal homecoming that Wenger will have envisaged when the draw was made, a notion that was put to him by one of the French reporters today. “For me, it is very special moment,” Wenger replied. “I was a young coach here at Monaco, and stayed here for seven years. I have a lot of respect for Monaco and want to thank the whole club … I am able to separate the emotion of coming back and the importance of the game. I am here for work and my job is for my club to win.”

A win will not be enough, as Wenger knows. His team have to score three goals without answer to get through and it has never been done before in the history of the modern Champions League - in fact you have to go back to 1969 for a comparable turnaround. Then Ajax lost 3-1 to Benfica in Amsterdam, won by the same result in Lisbon in the quarter-final second leg and then won the subsequent play-off, in Paris, the following month.

 

“That doesn’t matter,” Wenger said when confronted with the reality of his team’s task. “The statistics are against us. The result in the first leg is against us. We are conscious of that. No matter how big the percentage is [against us] we have to give absolutely everything to make the stats lie. That’s our desire and belief that we can do it.”

Which is what you would expect Wenger to say. Yet once again there is that whiff of the absurd about Arsenal’s season as they embark on their customary Premier League surge to re-qualify for this competition around the same time they are potentially about to exit it at the last 16 stage for the sixth consecutive season.

It is Wenger’s job to ensure that hopes spring eternal but was it also not the case that too few of his players believe they can survive? “I’m not worried about that because the desire is there, the belief is there,” Wenger said. “Football is not predictable but I can predict that the desire and belief will be there to do well. We have played in the Champions League last-16, we have experience, we know that anything can happen but on a positive front as long as we believe we can do it and I am confident we will.”

The one consolation is that the task is fairly simple for Wenger’s team. Against the best defence in France’s Ligue 1 they will have to score goals and it will be a question of how many attack-minded players he dares to squeeze into the team. Olivier Giroud, profligate in the first leg, will lead the attack with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla all likely to start and more firepower in Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott available from the bench.

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Left to right: Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla during Arsenal’s training session at London Colney on Monday (Getty)

“I think we will see the real face of Arsenal this time,” said Monaco’s Venezuelan-born Portuguese manager Leonardo Jardim. “They will try to win the game”. In order for them to do that, the defence will have to do a much better job than it managed in the first leg and Per Mertesacker’s admission that the team struggled mentally at the Emirates was troubling for Arsenal fans.

Nevertheless, Mertesacker is right that since that defeat to Monaco, their fortunes have taken an upturn. Four straight victories might have left Jose Mourinho still posing questions about their “momentum” but it seems that the Arsenal players at least have taken heart from that run.

Wenger was asked whether, during his time at Monaco, he ever ventured into the principality’s famous casino and, if so, how he fared at the tables. He chose to duck that one saying that his time was spent on the training ground with his usual protestation that he knows no life beyond football. But the point was well-made: winning this tie might have more to do with a throw of the dice rather than the more prosaic approach Wenger has adopted through his career.

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