Wenger confident as he faces 'greatest challenge of career'

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The Independent Football

The positive messages crackled from Arsène Wenger yesterday: his team would play with no fear, they can beat any other side in the world, the next 12 days would define what could be an extraordinary season and the moment of truth, therefore, had now arrived.

As he prepared for tonight's Champions League quarter-final first-leg against Liverpool, the Arsenal manager also delivered one of the more arresting pronouncements of his remarkable career. "It will," he said of the tie and the forthcoming league games against Liverpool and Manchester United, "be the highest challenge for me."

Wenger's words of what lies ahead in the next two weeks were given added weight by just what he has already achieved. To then equate the next four matches as the most important he has had to deal with shows just how highly he rates the stakes at present. He is on the verge of history or another maddening season without a trophy.

If Wenger was sending out messages with his pre-match press briefings then his underlying theme was also clear. If Arsenal overcome Liverpool at the Emirates, and in the manner that he wants his team to play, then it also makes plain to Manchester United and Chelsea that the Premier League title is not just theirs to fight over for the remainder of this season.

"And the impact of the first game of that sequence is also vital," Wenger said. "You think I've been fighting since the first day of the season in the championship to finish second? I want to finish first. Don't count on us to give up now after all we've gone through."

Whether or not he truly believes that battle can be won is another matter. But he wanted to make clear to his young squad that his faith is undimmed after days of doubt before last Saturday's victory away to Bolton Wanderers. "What I have learnt is that when our backs are to the wall, they have extraordinary resources," Wenger said. "We have the belief and desire to win the Champions League."

He added: "I want them to play without any restrictions. Just with belief that we are a great side and we can achieve it." Does that mean with no fear? "No fear," came the reply. "We have the belief that we can beat anybody in any competition. It doesn't matter if it's Liverpool or anyone else."

But it is Liverpool. The suspicion is that they are the side the seven others left in the competition were most anxious to avoid. And although Arsenal have an excellent recent record against them – four consecutive home wins and defeating them twice, at Anfield, in domestic cup competitions last season – Rafael Benitez has earned a reputation at judging this one just right.

Interestingly although this is the 200th time the two teams, the conquerors of the Milan clubs in the previous round, have played each other, it's the first in European competition. Wenger, who dismissed suggestions that Mathieu Flamini was about to join Juventus, revealing the Italian club had phoned him to deny being interested, said he hoped for a "spectacle" but the suspicion is that such a sight is unlikely.

"The priority is not to get a 0-0 draw," Wenger added, "the priority is to win the game. But to win without conceding is the ultimate target. There will be no real surprises. The surprise will come with the individual quality of the players and the combined talents of the teams."

Inevitably that has meant much of the focus has fallen on Liverpool's Fernando Torres, with 11 goals in his last 10 games, and with Benitez yesterday describing the Spanish striker as "on fire". Arsenal will attempt to douse that flame and although Wenger confirmed his admiration for Torres, and his pace, also conceding that he had considered trying to buy him "but he was always very expensive", the defender Kolo Touré had a different perspective. "If you can stop Steven Gerrard, then you can stop the Liverpool team," he said. "Torres is a really good player, but if he does not have a really good Steven Gerrard, then the game will be much easier for us."

No one expects anything to be easy tonight or in next Tuesday's return leg at Anfield although there is unlikely to be the animus between the two managers that existed when a certain Jose Mourinho came into the equation. Benitez spoke of his respect for Wenger yesterday but also revealed his confidence that Liverpool will prevail. "The Champions League is a good competition for us because we have a very good mentality and players with quality," he said. "We understand what to do in each game and we approach the games we have with more confidence. Our idea is to win and if you want to win you have to score. It's really important to score away from home in these games." Both sides, it seems, will be fearless.

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