Memories etched in sepia of a flawless Wembley pitch and a pearl-like ball, its surface devoid of laces, maintain their gentle pull on the heartstrings of Arsène Wenger. As a football-mad youth in Alsace-Lorraine, the annual FA Cup final broadcast was the staple that fostered his love of the English game.
The idea that he might take tonight’s engagement against fallen Coventry lightly insults his attachment to the grand old pot that did so much to fire the imagination of those looking through the May keyhole from afar, as well as bind this country to its national sport.
Arsenal are in, says Wenger, the “moment of a lifetime”, by which he means at an optimum point in the evolution of this team where anything is possible. Wenger would not want to ruin the moment by emulating the experience of last year when Arsenal were dumped out in the fifth round by Blackburn Rovers of the Championship.
“When you are on a run it is important not to interrupt it with a setback,” said Wenger. “That is what is at stake. Every win makes the team stronger and more confident. We do not want to be up and down and up and down. It is important we continue our consistent run. The team is growing in confidence. It is important not to question yourselves again, ‘are we good enough?’
“February is an important month where we play all the big teams so it is important to build up our strength and to trust our consistency. Last year’s [defeat] was a big disappointment. It was the first time in 16 years that we lost against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup. It was a great warning. At the moment it’s just our next game and we want to win it.”
The arrival of Coventry at the Emirates provides another nostalgic tweak to the Wenger landscape, and a reminder of the dangers of overexposure in the pursuit of footballing dreams. When he assumed the throne at Arsenal, Coventry were a Premier League opponent of some substance.
“I know much more than you think about Coventry City,” he said. “First of all, when I arrived here they were one of the good teams. I had many difficult games against them. We have to prepare seriously for this game. We want to gain respect, and through our attitude that is the best way to gain respect.”
The Frenchman’s attachment to the competition further endears him to football’s mother country. Delivered in his accented Wengerisms, his love of the oldest knockout competition in the game is a lesson in curation and restates the value of history and tradition which is often overlooked in these Champions League-heavy days.
“The only competition I could watch in France when I was a kid was the English FA Cup final. On black and white television, every year we saw the Cup final. That’s a very prestigious competition for me. It is true that maybe it does not have the glamour nowadays that it had in the Sixties and Seventies but it is still, for me, a very important competition.
“I just remember that I was always admiring Wembley’s pitch because I used to play on really bad pitches and the white ball, it was a dream to have this kind of ball. I played with a ball with laces at the time so that was always something special, too.”
The FA Cup remains the only major trophy won by Coventry, and it came against north London opposition. The victory against Tottenham in 1987 is still celebrated by members of the team, who gather episodically to toast the achievement. Though Coventry were in the top tier, they were the same heavy underdogs they are tonight.
The imbalance in power has not diminished the appetite for a game set for a full house, evidence according to Wenger of the growing power and attraction of his team. “It is just an indication of how big this club is,” he said. “I must say I have total respect that on a Friday night, people come to this game and that it is a sell-out. It is absolutely fantastic.”
Wenger spent last night poring over tapes of Coventry before finalising a line-up that will show one guaranteed change from the team that beat Fulham last Saturday with Lukasz Fabianski coming in between the sticks. There might also be a starting place for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after six months out of the game with a knee injury.
Wenger does not believe the lay-off has disrupted the stellar march of one of England’s brightest prospects in World Cup year. “He is in advance of where every player of his age is,” he said. “He has just been handicapped by injury but is in a very strong position.”
What are the biggest January transfers yet to happen?
What are the biggest January transfers yet to happen?
1/8 Tom Ince to Monaco, £10m
Monaco are leading the race to sign Blackpool winger Tom Ince according to reports. The England U21 international was reportedly driven by his father, Blackpool boss Paul Ince, to a meeting with representatives of the French club in London. The Blackpool boss cancelled a press conference ahead of his side's match with Barnsley earlier in the month after refusing to answer questions about his son's future. Instead he reportedly went to meet Monaco representatives, who can speak to the player whose contract expires in six months.
2/8 Edinson Cavani to Manchester United, £40m
Should United take the plunge and sell Wayne Rooney (either to Chelsea or otherwise) they'll need a replacement to fill his impervious shoes. The England striker will be out of contract next summer and is believed to want to make a decision on his future once the season has developed. Edinson Cavani is the international strike partner of fellow Uruguayan Luis Suarez and is reportedly disillusioned by football in Ligue 1. Reports surfaced this month that Sir Alex Ferguson had rung his former player Laurent Blanc, the current PSG manager, to sound out a possible move.
3/8 Yohan Cabaye to PSG, £21m
Newcastle United are preparing themselves for a considerable offer for Yohan Cabaye from the French giants after it emerged that they are willing to part with £21m for the midfielder. PSG have held a firm interest in the 28-year-old Frenchman for over a year and were expected to rival Arsenal for his signature in the summer. The Gunners' £10m bid was rejected and the Parisian club opted to bide their time despite Cabaye missing three games in an attempt to force a move away from St. James' Park.
4/8 Dimitar Berbatov (back) to Tottenham, £1.5m
His agent has already claimed that the Bulgarian would like to leave Fulham this month despite his contract expiring at the end of the season. With £2m believed to be enough to secure skillful striker, it would be a low cost, low risk option, but questions remain over his work rate and energy levels. Whether Berbatov would quench the thirst of fans who feel another striker is integral to their top four hopes remains uncertain, but he does come with a natural talent that few in the Premier League can match – if only he produced it regularly.
5/8 Miralem Pjanic to Manchester United, £27m
Roma star Miralem Pjanic has left the door open on a possible move to reigning Premier League champions Manchester United after admitting that he is 'flattered' by their interest. The 23-year-old Bosnia and Herzegovina international is also attracting attention from French giants Paris Saint Germain. Despite a move seeming unlikely during January, Pjanic appears open to a potential switch. It's a shame he isn't moving to a club in the capital, just because we could bring out our best 'Pjanic on the streets of London' gags.
6/8 Andriy Yarmolenko to Liverpool, £10m
Should they miss out on Salah, Liverpool may switch their attention to Dynamo Kiev's Andriy Yarmolenko. The Reds have held a tentative interest in the 24-year-old after he figured prominently for the Ukraine against England in last year's World Cup qualifiers. Yarmolenko has scored eight league goals in sixteen appearances for Kiev this season, and has fourteen goals for Ukraine. Kop manager Brendan Rodgers is rumoured to prefer Salah, but the Swiss club continue to stall on any potential deal.
7/8 Ravel Morrison to Fulham, £8m
West Ham want a minimum of £10m for their sought-after midfielder Ravel Morrison, according to reports. Sam Allardyce's side have already rejected a £5m bid from Fulham and reported the club to the FA for alleged tapping up of the player. Fulham boss Rene Meulensteen has now reportedly been banned from talking about any transfers as the club try to avoid any more trouble. However West Ham No. 2 Neil McDonald said: “I would imagine everybody has a price. Asked if the Hammers want to keep the England under-21 star, he added: “Why not? He’s a talented player and we need talented players."
8/8 Ilkay Gundogan to Manchester United, £25m
United’s search for midfield reinforcements has led them to Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan, although they could face a fight with Real Madrid to sign the Germany international. With Anderson at Fiorentina on loan, it is believed David Moyes has stepped up his interest in 23-year-old Gundogan whose contract expires in 18 months and is valued at £25m. Part of the attraction is that the midfielder is not cup-tied for the Champions League as he has been out for most of the season with a back injury, although German newspaper Bild reports that Real are also admirers. “I will soon make a decision that will be well considered. It’s still really open,” Gundogan said yesterday.