Arsène Wenger turns 60 on Thursday. Please, no cards, the Arsenal manager is trying to pretend it will not happen. "I have nothing to celebrate," he said when asked if he would mark the occasion with a party. He will spend the night watching Europa League football on television and appearing at the club's AGM. There he should have something to celebrate, and not just a victory against AZ here tonight which would all but ensure Arsenal's progression to the knock-out stages of the Champions League.
Regardless of the result he should enjoy a warmer welcome than the shareholders gave him in May when his faith on young players, and resistance to spending heavily on transfers, was rudely questioned with Mikaël Silvestre branded "geriatric" and one shareholder telling him: "I just don't understand your mindset." Afterwards Wenger said: "What was not enjoyable in that meeting was that it was disrespectful to some players and I don't accept that."
Yesterday he said he believed he had answered their criticism – "the fans believe we have a chance this season, that was not the case last season. We have a chance to win the league which was not the case at this time last year."
Arsenal have won their last seven matches to be four points off the top of the Premier League with a game in hand, and control Champions League Group H. All this despite continuing injuries, especially to attacking players. The latest of these, to Theo Walcott, has angered Wenger. The England winger suffered a knee injury in Saturday's defeat of Birmingham after a heavy challenge by Liam Ridgewell and will be out for "three to four weeks".
Wenger did not go as far to say he thought Ridgewell meant to injure the striker, who had only just returned from injury, but he left the thought hanging. "It was a double tackle. The first part is a very good tackle, but the second leg was more dangerous. He cut through with his second leg. that did the damage. Was that deliberate? Only the player knows."
Alex McLeish, Birmingham's manager, was quick to respond. "It was an excellent and perfectly timed challenge. It was firm but fair, as referee Lee Probert thought too as no free-kick was awarded."
Walcott, said Wenger, will miss England's friendly against Brazil in Doha next month, which, depending when Fabio Capello finalises his squad, may leave him only one further match to secure his World Cup place. Wenger admitted: "I believe Theo is worried about the World Cup, but I don't think there's any reason to. He will be in the squad. He will be fit." Also absent from the party that crossed the North Sea were Tomas Rosicky, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo, who were the front three for Arsenal's last Champions League away tie, in Liège. With Samir Nasri's recuperation from a broken leg only reaching the stage where he can play in the reserves this week, Wenger has five offensive players out.
Arsenal should be too much for an AZ team reeling from the financial woes of Dirk Scheringa, their benefactor. Scheringa owned, and was chief executive of the DSB Bank which was declared bankrupt yesterday. Wenger, who has always stressed clubs should grow within their own means, predicted a difficult future for a club which had successfully challenged Dutch football's big three, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Manuel Almunia is likely to be recalled by Arsenal, allowing Vito Mannone to take a break.