For a club of Arsenal's elevated stature and wonderful history, the Gunners have underachieved in the Champions League. The withering assessment of Arsène Wenger's 13 years chasing European football's glittering prize came not from someone from the Manchester United camp, trying to stir up ill feeling before tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg, but from the Arsenal manger himself.
Wenger admitted the club's failure to land Europe's top prize leaves an embarrassing gap in the trophy cabinet at The Emirates. Liverpool have won it six times; Manchester United three times; but Arsenal have managed just one appearance in the final, which they lost to Barcelona in 2006.
Yet Wenger believes his talented young team have the ability, the belief and the mental strength to go one better this year. He will send his side out at Old Trafford this evening with the message that this is their chance to seize the initiative and make history.
"This is the moment we've waited for and this is the moment we want to show we have what's needed to win," Wenger said. "It's a gap [in our history] and that is why we are very, very determined to wipe that out. I believe since we have been consistent and very close, every year we are nearly there. Let's continue like that and I am confident we will make it."
Wenger has overhauled the side that lost to Barcelona in Paris three years ago. Only three of the 11 that started the final in 2006 are still at the club – Cesc Fabregas, Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Eboué. The makeover has been accomplished without massive spending, although many critics have attacked Wenger for being too cautious with the club chequebook. Instead, Wenger has constructed a youthful side that he hopes will mature together. He refused to accept, however, that an Arsenal victory in the Champions League final would be a victory for clubs who do not simply spend their way to glory.
"It would be a demonstration that it is possible to be successful as long as you have cohesion in the way you build the team," Wenger said. "We have gone for a different way to build the team, not better, not worse. We have built a team because we wanted to build a special way of playing and spirit.
"When the players have been educated together from 16 to 24, you hope something special will come out at this level of the competition. The team has matured a lot. I believe the team is mentally strong and very determined. It is a different animal to last season, definitely."
While Arsenal, who have not won a trophy since the FA Cup in 2005, enter the semi-final stage as the least fancied of the four teams still involved, paradoxically they are the side that has the most to lose. The development of their young side has been the envy of many European sides. Wenger knows the Continent's richest clubs would jump at the opportunity to sign Fabregas, his strikers Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie or the winger Theo Walcott.
He hopes to convince them their futures lie with him in north London, even though the club's salary policy means they could earn far more money elsewhere. Victory in the Champions League final in Rome on 27 May would be the best possible way for him to sell his Arsenal dream to his playing staff.
Wenger predicted tonight's first leg will be an open game, and will impress on his men the need to score an away goal. "The rules, the modern rules, encourage teams at home to be cautious and the away team to be audacious. To score an away goal could be very important," he said.Reuse content