'If I feel I have to say something I will say it,' says Wenger

Feud that won't go away: Arsenal manager apologises for frustration but will not be deterred by League statement
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The Independent Football

Martin Keown, the story goes, was sitting in Arsenal's hotel dining-room during the earliest days of the club's French revolution with a pile of chips on his plate. The new manager, Arsène Wenger, so lean he looked almost pinched, sat down opposite with his spinach and broccoli, flitting the merest glance between the two dishes. No comment was made, nor was one necessary; Keown got the message.

Martin Keown, the story goes, was sitting in Arsenal's hotel dining-room during the earliest days of the club's French revolution with a pile of chips on his plate. The new manager, Arsène Wenger, so lean he looked almost pinched, sat down opposite with his spinach and broccoli, flitting the merest glance between the two dishes. No comment was made, nor was one necessary; Keown got the message.

Wenger has always possessed the ability to say a great deal in a few words of any of his five languages - often in none at all. So the injunction not to let the Sir Alex F-word pass his lips for the foreseeable future ought to prove no great hardship. If, on the other hand, a raised Gallic eyebrow or a suggestive shrug of those slim shoulders can earn even an equally slender advantage before Man-chester United visit Highbury on Tuesday week, no conciliatory Premier League statement will deter the Arsenal manager. The problem for both men, however, is that the championship of England is no longer a two-horse race.

"I don't know why I cannot say any more what I think," Wenger insisted on Friday. "I feel exactly as free as before to say what I think about football. Listen, I don't even know the statement because I haven't read it. On the day, if I feel I have to say something I will say it. I just said last week after [Arsenal's match at] Bolton, I didn't want to comment on that particular situation any more because I feel there's more interesting things for people than that. I don't want to say anything on it today, but it's not because the Premier League tells me [not to]. You know me well enough."

We thought we did, more than eight unceasingly successful years after the first headlines reading "Arsène Who?" That is why it was so shocking last weekend to see the normally urbane figure almost shaking with emotion long after his normal cooling-down period, following the 1-0 defeat at the Reebok Stadium. Given the right result at a traditionally difficult venue, Wenger might just have been able to shrug off Ferguson's strategically placed hand grenade of an interview in last Saturday's Independent, the most explosive part of which United had been particularly keen to see in the public domain.

The image of the Arsenal manager "sprinting towards me [Ferguson] with his hands raised, saying, 'What do you want to do about it?' " may have been difficult to conjure up, but did not seem quite as unlikely at the Reebok a few hours later, when a clearly rattled Wenger faced the media with his champions 10 points in arrears of Chelsea. The following evening, as guest of honour at a Football Writers' Association tribute dinner, he was his more characteristically civilised self in offering an unsolicited and rather touching apology: "I'm sorry for my frustrated reaction after games. Sometimes it's not paradise, it's hell. It can be a lonely job. You always want your team to be perfect. It maybe happens only once or twice a season, and I apologise if I get frustrated when that doesn't happen."

By Friday, after a week spent where Wenger most likes to be, on the training pitch, good humour too had returned. He was insistent, however, that the cause of last Saturday evening's emotional disturbance was Arsenal's performance, not Manchester United's manager: "Why was I upset? Because I felt we missed that extra strength we always have even when we are losing a game, and in that final 10 or 15 minutes I didn't feel that we really pushed and tried to reverse the result. They are really strong players and hungry players, but what was worrying was that it was like they had lost belief a little bit."

It is a serious admission about a group who famously fought off defeat in 49 successive League games before succumbing in late October amid scenes of even greater intensity at Old Trafford, where they had arrived five points clear at the top of the table. "No matter what you do after that [unbeaten run] it's never good enough, and that can affect young players. I don't say I'm not vulnerable. Like every human being I prefer you to say I'm good than I'm bad, but I'm long enough in the job to live with that. When you're a young player it's not as easy."

There is another factor, too, now that Chelsea have transformed the arithmetic, which Wenger admits weighs heavily on his squad. It is that they are under intense pressure going into every game, all the more so when Chelsea play first, as they did repeatedly over the holiday programme, last Saturday and again this weekend. "I wondered how much their result before the game had affected us," Wenger admitted of Arsenal's surrender at Bolton. "Some players say no but we looked like that."

It is a reasonable assumption that he spent much of the past week ahead of today's home game against Newcastle working on that wavering self-belief, especially among the younger players. To that end Wenger put forward an interesting theory: "Sometimes teams can suffer from the fact that they don't know how good they are. I give you an example: West Ham. You look how many good players they had together - Ferdinand, Joe Cole, Lampard, Defoe, Sinclair, Carrick - but because they're a small club and the players are young they didn't know how good they were. They think they are West Ham and they've never done it before.

"If they could have stayed together for three or four years they certainly would have done it. At Arsenal you have to have that self-belief." They will need it, in bucketloads, looking at the table this morning after another Chelsea victory yesterday. Perhaps Wenger should concentrate his verbal fire on Jose Mourinho, the welcome third figure in what is likely to become an eternal triangle of managerial mind games until Ferguson finally bows out - or is carried out.

From tomorrow onwards, the respective figureheads of Chelsea and United will be centre stage again for the second instalment of their midweek Carling Cup semi-final. Wenger, in the meantime, continues to put his faith in a card marked "blip", aware that en route to his first Premiership title in 1998, Arsenal were 15 points behind the leaders, United, on this same weekend but still overhauled them - crucially winning a late fixture on their rivals' ground, just as they will surely need to do at Stamford Bridge in April.

So there is a precedent, though he drew on two other sports for his examples: "It's like a tennis player on a run, winning tournament after tournament, but suddenly after six months loses one match, an unexpected one. Then he cannot win for two months. Momentum gives you belief, and at the moment Chelsea have that. But we were very close to beating them at home with a very young squad. It's like they started very quickly in a marathon. About halfway through the race they're keeping up the pace, but you never know, you can sometimes catch up in the final third."

Chelsea as Paula Radcliffe? Hmm. No sign of distress so far, and even Wenger admits that to haul Mourinho in would be his greatest achievement. Defeat at home to Newcastle today and Arsenal, like Keown, will have had their chips.

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