James Lawton: Vindication for Wenger on the road to Paris match

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The mystique of Arsène Wenger, the maker of beautiful football, is suddenly, magically, restored - but how long will he have to wait for his ultimate vindication?

In the case of his greatest rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, it was a matter of three years: the gap between his extraordinary decision to tear apart a championship-winning team and invest all his hopes in Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, the Neville boys, and Nicky Butt, and Champions' League glory at the Nou Camp.

When it happened, Ferguson ran along the touchline like a dancing boy. Wenger, surely, will be entitled to a similar celebration if his own courage is rewarded at the Stade de France in May.

First, though, he must preserve the amazing perfection of the chemistry that overwhelmed and embarrassed Juventus and their master coach Fabio Capello at Highbury this week. He took the first stride in this direction in the glow of Tuesday's victory when he regretted the lack of a killer third goal.

That wasn't being churlish, but hard-headed and in a few seconds he had taken us back to another Highbury night just over a year ago. For so many Arsenal fans it is recalled with the poignancy of a broken love affair. Remember that night when Bayern Munich came to town and slapped down the last of Wenger's belief that he could rescue a season - and a team - that had gone horribly wrong?

Michael Ballack looked like a giant, and Patrick Vieira shrivelled by comparison - as he had a few weeks earlier when Roy Keane produced the last of his great performances in a Manchester United shirt. After the Bayern game, Wenger looked like a man who had taken a wound that was making him think about the rest of his life. He admitted that Arsenal were not good enough to win the Champions' League, and there had to be change.

He didn't pronounce the death sentence, as far as Arsenal were concerned, on Vieira, the protégé he had guided brilliantly for nine years, but he might well have done so.

Maybe not the least benefit for Wenger is that Thierry Henry, listening to the derision that now faced his former comrade, and, more relevantly, seeing that he was lost in a side that hadn't been built around his qualities, may well have been given new insights into the possibilities of his own future. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a way of playing football more suited to Henry's unique gifts than the one that has so long been Wenger's hallmark.

When compared to the feisty running of Jose Antonio Reyes and the revived fluency of Pires, Henry was, by his own standards, ordinary in the first half. But in the second he blossomed beautifully, a redemption that was crowned when he so coolly exploited the killing break into the box by Cesc Fabregas.

Now the need for Wenger's sense of reality is as vital as ever if what happened this week is to prove something more than marvellous but freakish melding of old artistry and brilliant promise.

The potential of Fabregas, Vieira's successor, has surely been written in stone over the last few weeks and against Juventus he swept confidently beyond the impressive level he had achieved against Real Madrid in the previous round.

But then even a whisper of triumphalism has to be hunted down, in his young soul and every corner of the dressing-room, because beyond the technical brilliance which was being saluted yesterday in Italy - the home of technical brilliance - there was another warming truth about the Arsenal performance.

It was was one delivered as much by the apparently fading hero Pires, as the young lions Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Philippe Senderos and Emmanuel Eboué. It was about strength and belief and a refusal to be second in any tackle, any initiative. A few months ago this was a team being bullied out of the game at places like Bolton and Newcastle.

On Wednesday it was Arsenal doing the bullying, and players of the reputation of Vieira and Mauro Camoranesi cracked like shells. Wenger knows better than anyone that technical accomplishment means very little at the highest level of the game if is not supported by the kind of resolve which produced such a shattering impact against the reigning Italian champions and current eight-point leaders in Serie A.

Without such iron, the most delicate of skills are showy window dressings, which merely advertise the lack of essential goods. This is now the crucial testing ground for Wenger's young team.

When Manchester United won in Barcelona it was on one of their less articulate nights. They stuttered against functional, unambitious Bayern, but they won because they kept faith with their team ethos. It was to fight until they had delivered everything they had. That was sufficient to carry off the greatest prize in club football.

That Arsenal are "technically" capable of doing what United did, and Liverpool did in Istanbul, is no longer a question. Potential semi-final opponents Villarreal do boast the brilliant Argentine playmaker Juan Riquelme, but even he would have been delighted with the results achieved by the 18-year-old Fabregas this week, and Internazionale, the other possible semi-finalists, some time ago gave up practical hope of catching the team which were so thoroughly engulfed at Highbury. It is in the area of constant heart for the battle that Wenger's new order has to show winning credentials.

Again there is a parallel with United. Before they triumphed in Barcelona, United had to survive one of their greatest examinations in the Stadio delle Alpi. With the mighty help of Keane they did it. They won from a losing position. Arsenal do not have that burden as they take their two-goal cushion to Turin, but long before the end of Tuesday's game it was plain they had a solemn duty.

It was to put some final flesh on the brilliant bones of Wenger's work. For surely he too deserves to dance like a boy. And where better to do it than Paris in the spring?

'This is how football is played...' Reaction from Italy


Juventus were given a lesson in football at Highbury and the final looks a long way away. A schematic and predictable Juve suffered at the hands of a team rich in able midfielders and forwards with great technique.

Giorgio Tosatti, doyen of Italian football writers

Arsenal fans will have enjoyed the first goal which began when Vieira lost the ball to Pires and was finished, via Henry, by Fabregas: from the past, to the present, to arrive at the future.

Report, Roberto Perrone


Juventus out of their heads: six bookings, two red cards, and zero in attack

Front-page headline

The politics of youth, which Arsenal chose at the beginning of the season, are now bearing fruit.

Comment, Paolo Forcolin

Maybe he was emotional but he didn't show it in a first half in which he was Juve's best player... But at the end of the first half, Vieira became the first brick to fall in the crumbling wall of Juventus.

Sidebar on Vieira, Luca Curino

Arsenal's movement denied Juve's back four any reference points and the defenders were forced to commit fouls to break up Arsenal's game, which was all rapid triangles with the ball on the ground. The dynamism and aggression never allowed Capello's team time to think.

Report, Luca Calamai

The little Spaniard outclassed his teacher Vieira as once, our history books tell us, Giotto eclipsed his maestro Cimabue.

Article on Fabregas, Giancarlo Galavotti


Arsenal were more mobile, fitter, more enterprising - more everything... [They] combine the athleticism of English football with Franco-Spanish technique.

Comment, Gianni Mura

It was a defeat to which there was no reply, as has so often happened to Juventus in Europe - such a different team to that which plays the big shot back home in Italy.

Comment, Emanuele Gamba


A miracle is needed.

Front-page headline

The worst Juventus of the season moved closer to elimination from the Champions' League with a defeat that suddenly laid bare their technical, tactical, physical and disciplinary limitations in a kind of alarming collective zero.

Giancarlo Padovan, editor

This, people, is how football is played in paradise. Movement, dribbling, interchanges of passes - delicious. It is football "Made in England" from an Arsenal which didn't feature a single Englishman.

Comment, Elvira Erbi