James Lawton: Petulance in Paris proves Wenger is still world's worst loser
Friday 19 May 2006
With a sad and even crushing predictability, Arsène Wenger did win one title in Paris this week. Really it was more a case of a successful defence of the crown he has worn, unabashed, through all his years of glory and near misses. He remains the world's lousiest loser.
No doubt Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson will refresh their own claims to that title next season but in the meantime the Arsenal manager can be assured he has once again outstripped all-comers.
The old myopic cartoon character Mr Magoo certainly isn't in the chase. Wenger said that the key to Arsenal's admittedly poignant European Cup final defeat was the linesman's failure to pull up the Barcelona flyer Samuel Eto'o for offside when he ran on to Henrik Larsson's beautifully crafted little pass for the equaliser which finally undid the scuffling but undoubtedly gallant 10 men of Arsenal.
Wenger harped on the detail of a game that for reasons which had nothing to do with Barcelona suddenly lost its potential to illuminate the football heavens.
But that didn't detract for a second from a truth that would surely have been swiftly granted by anyone with more of a willingness to embrace the realities of both football and life.
It was that Barcelona did what they had to with skill and perseverance and in the end they were entirely worthy champions of Europe.
The investment of their coach Frank Rijkaard - a great European Cup-winning player in his time - has been in the best of football. He has spent his money on the finest values of football; on burning speed and masterful skill. His signing of Ronaldinho - a player turned down by Real Madrid because it was felt that he lacked the looks to be a celebrity star and a major shirt-seller - was the foundation of his ambitions. But he didn't send out Ronaldinho as some virtuoso solo act. He had him as the centrepiece of a team geared to play the most adventurous football of their day. As a consequence, Real Madrid have been forced into the abandonment of their absurd galactico policy - and Chelsea, after spending astonishing amounts bringing to Stamford Bridge players such as Michael Essien, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Didier Drogba, are at last beginning to move for performers of both the highest standards of consistent performance and genuine star appeal.
This is the underpinning of the new champions of Europe.
If Wenger had any capacity at all to see the big picture his emphasis would have been dramatically different. Television re-runs point to the fact that Eto'o of the electric turn of foot may have been fractionally offside. It was one of those decisions which can go either way in the course of any game at any level, and as Wenger builds another side he would surely have been better off emphasising that it was his potentially brilliant but still highly volatile young full-back, Emmanuel Eboué, rather than the Norwegian official who was most culpable in the moment of breakdown. Eboué allowed Eto'o unhindered passage into the danger zone. Eboué might also easily have been awarded a yellow card for his shameless dive for the free-kick which allowed Thierry Henry to send a pinpoint cross on to the head of Sol Campbell for Arsenal's improbably defiant goal in the 38th minute.
If the referee, Terje Hauge, had had the vision and the nerve to react to the kind of cheating that Wenger so many times attributes to opponents - always a long shot after the official's reflex decision to send off Jens Lehmann rather than allowing a perfectly worked Barcelona goal - Eboué would have been collecting his second yellow card and Arsenal would have been down to nine men against the finest creative force in world club football.
Instead of such reflection from Wenger, of course, the decibel count of his whingeing went so high that it would have caused public protest had it happened anywhere near Heathrow.
Henry, whose coyness over his future intentions surely needs to be dropped swiftly in the wake of a disappointing result that cuts deeply into the euphoria provoked by the belief that Arsenal might just move into their new stadium as champions of Europe, was quick to follow his leader. He baldly claimed that the referee was a cheat while at the same time dismissing the performances of Ronaldinho and Eto'o, who for weeks now have been seen as certain new team-mates of the Frenchman.
This was gracelessness that seriously invaded Henry's reputation as both a man of the world and one of considerable style.
Most sad, though, was the fresh evidence of Wenger's own split personality. So much of his work has been superlative; his insights, his ability to draw every last ounce out of unformed talent, have become legendary. But now in the wake of what just might have been his finest moment in football, Wenger invites a return to some of his most outrageous refusals to take defeat with the philosophical shrug that marks the approach of football men with a sense of life beyond the touchlines.
At least Wenger refrained from indicting the referee's decision to eject Lehmann. In a perfect world the official would have played the advantage instead of punishing both teams - and profoundly distorting a game that was beginning to draw on a quite dazzling array of talent. As it was, Barcelona lost a goal that had been brilliantly fashioned and Arsenal were obliged to get all their players behind the ball instead of competing with a Barça lifted so menacingly by such a early and potentially devastating breakthrough.
It meant that suddenly there was only one big question: Did Arsenal have the legs to stifle the attacking flair of Barcelona for 70 minutes? In the end they did not. It was not about official corruption, as Henry suggested; it was about the equation of pressure exerted and inevitably dwindling resistance.
Ronaldinho didn't light up the sky as the football cognoscenti had hoped. The compression of bodies caused by Arsenal's need to crowd into defence sharply reduced the space the Brazilian would have been given to inflict his genius had Arsenal remained at full strength and been obliged to play with some aggression - and even more so if Hauge had allowed the goal the outstripped Arsenal defence let Ludovic Giuly run in after Lehmann had brought down Eto'o. But then the threat, if not always the reality of Ronaldinho, finally wore down Arsenal's cover.
For Wenger the future has never been more of a challenge. He has to do the hardest thing in life: build beyond past successes, reach out for new achievement despite a CV that will always be one of the great ones. With the likely disappearance of Henry and the certain one of his brilliant ally, Robert Pires - who was suggesting a major performance on Wednesday night before he was sacrificed with the dismissal of Lehmann - Wenger must hope that young Cesc Fabregas will grow strong at the broken place that came in the Stade de France this week. The Arsenal manager must hope, too, that not too far into the future Theo Walcott justifies all the extraordinary sight-unseen belief in his prospects. He must dismiss the belief that fate is loaded against his dream of one day being the master of Europe.
Because his passion for the game has so often been beautifully reflected in the performance of his teams, because his eye for talent is so inspired, Wenger will inevitably carry the good wishes of discerning football lovers as the Frenchman embarks on his latest challenge. However, it would help so much if he ever showed an inkling of how to take defeat like a man rather than some petulant adolescent.
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