I wasn't good enough for Arsenal, admits Larsson
Midfielder says he has no regrets about joining Birmingham as he aims to frustrate his former club's trophy ambitions
Saturday 26 February 2011
His first thought tomorrow will be to help Birmingham City win their first major trophy for 48 years but as Sebastian Larsson prepares to face Arsenal in the Carling Cup final you imagine that somewhere submerged beneath professional priorities will be a question to which he will never know the answer.
It may come closer to the surface at whichever point during the Wembley preliminaries that he renews acquaintance with Nicklas Bendtner. The two have much in common. Both joined Arsenal as 16-year-olds, leaving their respective homes in Sweden and Denmark. In the summer of 2006, they were packed off together on long-term loan to Birmingham and each played a major role in securing promotion to the Premier League for the second time for manager Steve Bruce.
Yet, despite the bond of shared success, their paths then diverged. Larsson, 21 and unsure how often or how rarely he might make Arsène Wenger's starting XI, was offered the chance to stay with Birmingham and took it, signing a permanent deal in January 2007. Bendtner, two and a half years younger and with his self-belief already established, was adamant his destiny lay with Arsenal. He convinced Wenger it did, too. He completed a season at St Andrew's but Bruce's bid to sign him as well as Larsson was turned down.
Four years on, Bendtner has 29 appearances in the Champions League to his name but Larsson has started 124 senior games to the Danish striker's 67. Both may now be asking themselves: who did make the right decision?
Larsson, determined not to indulge any thoughts of what might have been with regard to an Arsenal side he believes is about to realise its full potential, feels his own choice has been justified, particularly given that he had to win over a new manager when Alex McLeish followed Bruce.
"After being on loan here and playing regular football I knew I couldn't go back to being a fringe player," he said.
"Playing reserve-team football and the odd game here or there is not the same as playing week-in, week-out in the first team. Even if you are further down the league, you still have the tempo and intensity of competitive matches and you cannot compare the two.
"Sometimes you have to be honest with yourself and say you were not good enough, at that moment, to play for Arsenal. There is no shame in saying that.
"I had a good relationship with Steve Bruce but it has been very good under Alex McLeish, who showed a lot of faith in me straight away. I have been in the team most weeks since and I'm very grateful for that.
"With Nicklas, everyone knows he believes in himself and he has a lot of talent. He has been involved a lot since he went back to Arsenal. He is not starting every week but he is getting his fair share of games and if that is enough for him, only he can answer.
"Personally I have no regrets. I needed to get out and play first-team football and when the opportunity came I had to take it."
This summer is likely to require more decisions for both players. Bendtner, belatedly, is beginning to contemplate a future elsewhere after starting only two Premier League matches this season. Larsson, his four-year contract running down, was close to joining Newcastle in January only for Birmingham to change their minds about selling him, although he insists he did not want to leave.
More immediately, the questions both seek to answer tomorrow is whether Arsenal can win their first trophy since the FA Cup of 2005 or whether Birmingham, for whom the two-leg League Cup final of 1963 provided their only major silverware, can stop them as McLeish seeks to supplement the eight trophies he won as a manager in Scotland with a moment, he says, that would match them all.
"A first trophy in England would be a huge milestone in my career," the 52-year-old former Rangers and Scotland manager said. "I would never take any of the wins I have had in the past for granted, especially when at Rangers you were beating your rivals Celtic to win trophies at a time when Celtic had guys like Henrik Larsson and John Hartson and I had some fantastic international players – Ronald de Boer, Barry Ferguson, Michael Mols, Arthur Numan – who made the standard very high.
"But to win something in England with a small club – relatively speaking it would be up there with all the great achievements."
Realistically, McLeish and Larsson know the odds against Birmingham are long, even with the injuries to Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott. Larsson believes that Wenger's team is ready to secure the Frenchman a raft of trophies to rival McLeish.
"Arsène Wenger has almost built a new team again and I would say they are coming to a peak now," Larsson said. "Can we beat them? It will be tough but it is a final, anything can happen.
"We know we are going to have to be defensively very solid because as we saw the other week they cut a team like Barcelona apart. But we have to do something to try and win the game."
The physical approach that has earned meetings between these teams some notoriety, however, is not what he has in mind. The horrific injury to Eduardo in 2008 remains fresh in the memory and there were unpleasant echoes at St Andrew's on New Year's Day this year, when Fabregas narrowly escaped from a needlessly reckless challenge by Roger Johnson, and Lee Bowyer was banned for three matches on video evidence for stamping on Bacary Sagna. But Arsenal's 3-0 win that day strengthened Larsson's conviction that Wenger's players are no longer to be bullied, and that Birmingham will have to beat them by other means if they are to defy the odds.
"It is true that in the past they have not been able to cope with the physical side but I wouldn't agree with that now. In January here they were very strong. I don't think we can go out at Wembley and kick them off the park, not any more. They would probably kick us back.
"Of course, I'm not going to say we are going to play them off the park – that's not likely. But we have had quite a few good performances against them, especially when we have been solid and able to frustrate them. If we try to take care of the ball, too, we feel quite confident we can play football as well."
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