James Lawton: Arsenal sail serenely on while Benitez clings to red wreckage

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The Independent Football

If it wasn't touched by some strands of familiar beauty, you would have to say it is perverse: Arsenal - in the season of their greatest weakness since, under Arsène Wenger, they first challenged the might of Manchester United and then set their own standards - the last Premiership club standing in the Champions' League.

But if it seems extraordinarily ironic, it is maybe not so hard to explain. In their year of transition, when they have found themselves such easy prey for the bullying tendency in the English game, they have continued to play football, Wenger football, and in Europe, so often in the past a minefield for their highest ambitions, they have found a kind of refuge.

In Europe you are rewarded for passing accuracy, for swift and subtle movement, for belief in the genius of a Thierry Henry, and this opens up an astonishing and heart-warming possibility. It is that Wenger might just join his bitter foe Sir Alex Ferguson on the pedestal of European champions, produce a remarkably symmetric, if a little tardy, conclusion to the years in which they dominated domestic football so utterly.

Who but the most impassioned - and currently embittered - denizen of Stamford Bridge could not celebrate such a twist to the season which was supposed to be all about Chelsea's latest annexation of the title and the renewal of their effort to dominate Europe? The possibility, long shot though it may remain, has certainly transformed the face of Wenger. Had he been any more serene at Highbury on Wednesday night after safe passage against the dimming galacticos of Real Madrid he might have ascended over north London on a cloud.

Being Wenger, of course, he couldn't quite uproot himself from the trenches, delivering a broad dig at his tormentor Jose Mourinho when referring to the "style" and the "dignity" of his team's passage into the quarter-finals.

That may have been a touch gratuitous but when did Wenger, or Ferguson, ever shrink from scoring a point off a rival? The important point is that neither of them have sought to distract praise and attention from their teams in moments of glory. Nor have they ever failed to invest their hopes in the highest quality of football; that's why Ferguson insisted on signing Wayne Rooney, why Wenger tipped up a staggering amount to acquire the potential of Theo Walcott.

Can Arsenal do it? When Henry is really playing, when Cesc Fabregas shows increasing evidence that Arsenal's youth manager Liam Brady was doing rather more than whistling in the dark when he declared that the teenaged Spaniard could well emerge as one of the world's great midfielders, and when Jens Lehmann's nerve, and sanity, is not in question, plainly most things are possible.

But of course it is a massive ask. Arsenal unquestionably have had a soft route to the quarter-finals; Ajax, their principal threat in the group action, are a shell of their old selves, and the ravages inflicted by the policies of fallen president Florentino Perez are deeply etched on the bewildered features of Real. Can Arsenal's fledgling defence now withstand the assaults of a Ronaldinho or a Shevchenko? Are they ready to survive the knowing instincts of Juventus and Milan?

These are tough questions, no doubt, and we can be sure they will swiftly overtake Wenger's euphoria at outlasting Chelsea and the fallen champions Liverpool on the big stage.

However, it is in the demise of Liverpool, and the inevitable re-examination of Benitez's miraculous achievement in last year's competition, that Wenger will surely draw most encouragement.

Liverpool fell to Benfica, a team of less than awesome weight who might have been swept out of contention but for the Anfield club's chronic lack of finishing power. Yet at this time last year Liverpool, a team demonstrably short of the highest class in roughly half of their positions, were gathering themselves to knock down Juventus, Chelsea and a Milan, who at one point led by three goals.

Surely this is fuel for Arsenal optimism. What Benitez proved more than anything was the value of a coach with a clear idea of what he wants and a consistent set of values and tactics.

In the wake of this week's disappointment, the Liverpool board must surely respond to Benitez's demand for a decent working budget. He has asked for £30m to make a more serious challenge to Chelsea, which seems reasonable enough when you consider Mourinho has paid not so much less than that for a reserve winger.

For Wenger there may in recent months have been some questioning of his future. No doubt his victory at the Bernabeu did nothing to diminish the admiration of those at the great club who pine for the days when football affairs were not some mere policy decision of the merchandising department, and every passing coach was at the mercy of the whims of the celebrity dressing-room. Wenger and the hometown boy Benitez are logical targets in the relaunching of Real as a serious football club, and no doubt both Arsenal and Liverpool are aware of the risks attached to this fact.

Wenger's defection would, of course, prove devastating as Arsenal move into their new quarters at Ashburton Grove, but the flush of his satisfaction at results in Europe, the sense that youngsters like Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini and Walcott might soon enough be vital factors in a new order, suggest that another anchor of commitment may have been put down.

That certainly must be the hope at the end of a week which, but for the survival of Arsenal, would have been a damning statement on the Premiership's frequent claim that it is the best league in the world.

As it is, Arsenal have managed to preserve a flame of quality. Their football in Madrid was exceptional. At home it did not wilt too damagingly under the pressure to survive and rescue something significant from a season which at times has promised to bestow only despair.

Arsenal, champions of Europe, a fanciful idea? You would have had to say so last season when they were swept aside by Bayern Munich at Highbury. That seemed to be the end of something, but Wenger said that he would go away and think about the meaning of defeat and the future of his team. It is what great football men are from time to time obliged to do.

That Wenger remains in their company is, whatever happens now, the most uplifting assertion of a hazardous week.

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