Wenger wants Cup, but only as a bonus

 

Another Arsenal FA Cup campaign begins tonight, at home against Leeds United, and while the supporters are desperate to reclaim the trophy they last won in 2005, it does not hold the same place in Arsène Wenger's priorities. The Arsenal manager is unambiguously clear: requalifying for the Champions League is his priority.

The FA Cup, according to Wenger, is merely "a bonus that we want", in contrast to the Champions League, which is "something that is needed".

This means that given the choice of an FA Cup final in May, or an effective play-off to requalify for the Champ-ions League, his preference would always be for the latter.

"If, on the last day of the season, you ask me, 'Do you play the final of the FA Cup or do you play for the final game that qualifies for the Champions League?' it will never be like that. For us it is not comparable, the FA Cup and Champions League. The Champions League is compulsory. The FA Cup is something that is for enjoyment."

While Wenger was obviously insistent that winning tonight's game was important, he acknowledged that the status, finances and ambitions of Arsenal all made Champions League qualification a requirement at the expense of all others.

"It is more important," Wenger said of the Champions League as compared to the FA Cup. "That means you will want me to say it's not important to win on Monday: it's very important to win on Monday for us. But the basis of our life at the top level is dictated by the championship. If we can add on top of that the FA Cup it is fantastic.

"But our life, at the level where we are, with the wages we have, and the aspirations we have, is to play in the Champions League. After that you want, of course, to win all the other trophies."

Although Arsenal's long-standing record of league prioritisation might be a frustration to some supporters, Wenger insisted that it represented genuine achievement. Six years without a trophy, he said, should rather be looked at as six years of Champions League participation.

"During the same six years we have been in the Champions League and already qualified in the group stage," he said, "and that is most important. We have been in the semi-finals of the Champions League and final of the Champions League and you will realise one day that it is not as easy as it looks and this year we are again one of the two teams who qualified."

Wenger, nonetheless, will not be taking the Yorkshire side lightly. "We have the experience of last year when we couldn't beat them at home, so let's hope we can do it this year," said Wenger, who will be without captain Robin van Persie, who is on a family break in Dubai.

"We just lost a game in the League [at Fulham] which gave us a lot of regrets, so we want to respond quickly with a win. We have a good opportunity because we play at home.

"I will play a strong side, a normal side. Maybe one or two will be rested, but apart from that I think we will still have Marouane Chamakh, although Robin van Persie will certainly be rested."

Van Persie is needed for more important matters, like the Champions League. In the last six years Arsenal have always progressed beyond the group stage of the Champions League – which they have done again this year while the two Manchester clubs did not. This is another source of pride to the manager.

"Everybody is entitled to view it differently but you can't compare winning the Carling Cup to every year coming out of the group stage and every year qualifying for the Champions League. There is no comparison."

Even given the nostalgic signing of Thierry Henry, who should make his return to the club tonight, Wenger's concentration on the future is intense. So intense that he does not even keep track of the medals he has won at Arsenal so far.

"I don't know where I have my medals," he admitted. "I look forward for the next one, for the next game, for the next win. That's the life of a top-level player. I don't think I keep them, I don't know where. Because it's more important what is in front of you."

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