Wenger desperate to get rid of final scars
There are many reasons why Arsenal and their manager are desperate to win a European Cup, and the manner of their failure in the final four years ago is high on the list. Memories of that unfortunate meeting with Barcelona will be revived when the Catalans come to London for the first leg of this season's quarter-final on Wednesday, and can be used as extra incentive, should any be required against unquestionably the finest club side in the world at present.
Yet it is Arsène Wenger, his staff and the Emirates supporters, rather than Arsenal's players, who carry the scars. Of the starting XI in Paris that night in May 2006, only Cesc Fabregas, Emmanuel Eboué and Sol Campbell are now at the club. Then there is Manuel Almunia, forced to pull on his goalkeeping gloves as an early substitute when the headstrong Jens Lehmann was sent off for bringing down Samuel Eto'o.
Even though Campbell then headed Arsenal into the lead, the red card was the game's pivotal moment, which helped deny Wenger the honour of becoming a European champion that he deserves to share with his Premier League contemporaries Sir Alex Ferguson, Rafael Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti. "The game didn't become what it promised to be," he said last week. "This time I'm sure it will be different. It's very frustrating for a manager not to win the title, but on the night we turned up with a decent performance and that's all you can do. We played with 10 men. With 13 minutes to go it was 1-0. We had a good chance to score a second and third even. And these games are decided by that."
Thierry Henry, alas, was guilty of missing those chances. On Wednesday he will appear in opposition colours, deserving a reception every bit as warm as those accorded to David Beckham and Jose Mourinho on nostalgia-drenched returns to old haunts earlier this month. "I think it will be very emotional for him to come back," Wenger said, "but Thierry lived his big emotional career more at Highbury than the Emirates. He was one of the greatest players I ever had, of course. I think he will get the great reception that he deserves as one of the historical players of the club. Then when the game starts, they will forget that he played for us."
Barcelona followers will be understandably less generous to Fabregas, unless they wish to show forgiveness to a player wrenched away from them at an uncomfortably young age and quite possibly destined to return one day. The bind for Arsenal is that the better he plays over the two legs of this tie, the greater will be the determination at the Nou Camp to take him home. "It's important we don't put too much pressure on Fabregas," Wenger said. "It is my job to make sure that we focus on a good team performance and don't expect Fabregas to make the difference on the night. It will be unfair and not realistic. He will be under pressure because of Spanish attention. But he has to relax and enjoy the game like everybody else."
If there is one player Arsenal would like to apply pressure to, it is Barce-lona's little genius Lionel Messi, currently in the purplest velvet patch of form. From being a player who could occasionally be frozen out of a game when stationed out on the right wing, he has recently been reinvented as a deep-lying centre-forward running at defences to terrifying effect. The temptation must be to man-mark him, especially with an excellent candidate available in Alex Song, yet Wenger insists he has never done that at Arsenal and does not like the idea: "It can work, but in exceptional teams you have two or three you should man-mark and then you have to go to a system where you could create your own problems just by following somebody everywhere. It's important that we have a good team organisation on the night, we know that, but ideally for us it's important that we don't concede a goal and that we win the game."
Much as he admires individual talent, Arsenal's manager has always been big on team ethic. Thus he concludes: "Who doesn't like Messi? But [it is best] not to speak too much about Barcelona. On the night we know we play an exceptional team and it is for us [to] turn up with an exceptional performance. If there is one team that can give them a problem it is us."
This week in Europe
Champions' League (7.45pm)
Bayern Munich v Manchester United (Sky Sports 2)
Lyon v Bordeaux (Sky Sports 3)
Bordeaux are clinging on to a lead in their domestic league after ending Lyon's seven-year monopoly. Laurent Blanc's credentials, of interest to United, will be enhanced if his team go through.
Arsenal v Barcelona (ITV1)
Internazionale v CSKA Moscow (Sky Sports 2)
Jose Mourinho says his players are more motivated by Europe than attempting to win a fifth successive Serie A. It is 45 years since Inter were last European champions.
Benfica v Liverpool (8.05, Five)
The Portuguese, conquerors of Everton by 5-0 and 2-0, are the highest scorers in this competition, so Liverpool must defend well while seeking an away goal.
Fulham v Wolfsburg (8.05, ESPN)
Is Roy Hodgson's thin squad running out of steam? They will need the Cottage in full voice to build a lead against the German champions.
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