James Lawton: Profanity and humour mask Wenger gloom after ambush

Click to follow

Arsène Wenger's torment was maybe painful to see, especially when this most urbane of football men employed a phrase quite often favoured by those suddenly besieged by the deepest frustration. You know the one, for f...'s sake. It accompanied his refusal to be drawn deeper into a controversy that, in truth, would have been of his own making.

But it is not quite right to say that he lost it after again being ambushed at his least favourite football ground.

His Arsenal players lost it, two minutes into stoppage time, with unforgivable negligence after apparently subduing the new and splendidly combative Birmingham City, and Wenger's fear that it may have cost them their last chance of staying stride-for-stride with Manchester United and Chelsea in the title race seemed to flow through every fibre of his body.

Given that, and all the demons that doubtless crowded into the team bus on the way to St Andrew's, Wenger's post-game performance was in some ways most remarkable for the odd flash of humour. Indeed, one inner voice might have been saying, smile, even though your heart is breaking.

First though, he had his complaints. Not surprisingly in the circumstances, they made quite a list. He thought the knee-high tackle by Craig Gardner on Cesc Fabregas, which might just have endangered the captain's place in Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final with Barcelona, was dangerous, "one more" inflicted on his team. He claimed the pitch was bad, and unbelievably so. Nor was he happy that Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, was allowed to celebrate Kevin Phillips' somewhat slapstick equaliser out on the pitch.

Yet if the horrendous injury to Eduardo here two years earlier lingered powerfully in the psyche of Wenger and his players, the manager stopped short of the outrage with which he greeted the catastrophically mistimed tackle which might well have destroyed Arsenal's season in February, 2008.

Then he argued Martin Taylor, the author of the tackle so sickening that the TV footage was left on the cutting room floor, should be banned for life.

If the pressure was showing this last weekend, it did not lead to any need for retractions.

Wenger said: "It's a big disappointment to be pulled back in the last minute. Barcelona is a different competition and we have a few days to recover and prepare. But of course it feels like a defeat today. Yes, I was frustrated. You get the number of fouls we made but we're on top of the yellow cards ... we got some yellow cards and the goal was offside on top, it's a bit too much.

"I think this is a very hostile place but what is most important is that the pitch is terrible. If we sell our game to international rights for £1.2bn next year it means we have to offer something to people when we pretend we have the best league in the world. The minimum is that we have to take care of the pitches when we want so much money."

When it was put to him that the best players should be able to negotiate the worst playing conditions better than their rivals, Wenger's eyes narrowed and he said, "When you go to a dentist you want him to have as bad [instruments] as possible to try to repair your teeth? Excuse me, but it's a stupid question."

If he didn't like the question, though, he was rather pleased with his answer. He was also adroit enough when dealing with reaction to his complaint about McLeish's celebration, which was maybe not so much a hanging offence as another spur to Wenger's angst. "You are not allowed on the pitch? Why should I be surprised? But it's not my problem, I'm not responsible for respect of the rules. It is the problem of the fourth official."

Perhaps inevitably, Wenger's appetite for such sparring was strictly limited. He left with the admission that it had been a crushing day. "Yes, it's always hard to pick the players up when you get caught like that. It's very difficult when we know we have no room for error at all. So today is a big disappointment for us."

It was surely that much harder for Wenger to bear knowing that he had come so close to a strikingly successful employment of his resources so close to the huge challenge represented by the European champions, Barcelona. Though Arsenal played the sweeter football either side of an impressively coherent eruption by the team McLeish has so brilliantly turned around, Wenger appeared to have played his cards with perfect acumen when Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin appeared late but with potentially devastating effect.

They transformed a team performance which had been best served by the strength and mobility of Abou Diaby, who at times suggested that he would personally compensate for Fabregas's subdued authority and the total failure of Theo Walcott to remind us of the kind of aura he made for himself in England colours on a distant night in Zagreb.

Both Nasri and Arshavin had chances to wrap up the three points after the beautifully struck drive by the former opened the scoring with nine minutes to go.

Wenger's best hope now is that his team will respond against Barça as they did after the Eduardo injury. Then, they went to San Siro and ransacked another set of reigning champions, Milan. Fabregas scored a goal of brilliant skill and great nerve and Wenger had reason to believe the crisis had passed.

There were darker realities, however. One was that Milan would soon enough reveal that they were an old team in the process of falling apart. Another was that Arsenal carried wounds that went deeper than many, and perhaps even Wenger, imagined.

What he probably wanted most on his return to St Andrew's was evidence that his team is a little older and rather more resilient. If he didn't get that, at least he could hope this time he was merely counting flesh wounds.