James Lawton: Wenger must exorcise weary spirit of complacency for final assault on summit

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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger, whose willingness to question the integrity of most anyone who does not happen to be wearing an Arsenal shirt had created such a firestorm of controversy, was honest - but only to a degree.

He said that his men had come up critically short in the quality of their football while just one step away from the supreme moment in the club's history. But then anyone in El Madrigal stadium or watching on television could see that. The key reaction was not to do with the bald evidence of desperate, and deeply fortunate, survival in pursuit of a place in the Champions' League final but how to prevent a hitherto brilliant campaign ending in cruel anticlimax against some of the most accomplished finishers in world football at the Stade de France next month.

That cause will not be furthered by the kind of evasion which lay at the heart of Wenger's post-game analysis. Fatigue was his explanation. It was too trite. The weariness was of the mind and the spirit, and no amount of self-serving spin could take that away.

Arsenal simply didn't play. They handed the initiative to Villarreal's Argentinian playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and it was another piece of their good luck that this is a player who, after the two most important club matches he is ever likely to play, appears to have a vastly inflated reputation. Silky skill he has, no doubt. But the drive and the presence of a truly dominating midfielder, someone to shape the action under maximum pressure? His failure of nerve at the penalty spot was his final defeat. Arsenal could not stop giving him and his team-mates the ball, but they went unpunished. Riquelme enjoyed oceans of space and time, but his play was a mere adornment. It never explored tellingly the weakness of Arsenal's approach, its abject failure to apply even minimal pressure.

Plainly, it was an escape that brought the spectre of crushing disappointment in Paris - and the kind of heartbreak that afflicted another English club, Leeds United, in the same city 31 years ago. Leeds thought their destiny, after a decade as one of England's strongest, and in the end, most creative teams, would be fulfilled at the Parc des Princes and most independent judges believed, along with the fans who tore up the seats, that they had been outrageously hindered by a biased referee. Bayern Munich, everyone agreed, had been significantly outplayed, but the Germans rode their luck to win 2-0 and Franz Beckenbauer seemed only mildly embarrassed when he collected the trophy.

In all their angst, though, Leeds did not have the pain of believing that they had let themselves down in the most important challenge they had ever faced.

That was the fate that the nerveless penalty save of Jens Lehmann prevented in Spain on Tuesday night, but ultimately it will mean nothing if the lesson - and the deliverance - of El Madrigal is not properly absorbed.

Villarreal's coach, Manuel Pellegrini, claimed that his team were "very superior" to Arsenal and if you put aside the lack of a killing swordstroke or two, that cannot really be denied. The difference was that Villarreal were committed to scoring goals while Arsenal were not. That shaped every strand of the action, and it was a reality that everyone who played, and Wenger himself, cannot avoid.

Before the game the Arsenal manager spoke magnificently of the team's imperative to play the best of their football. He said that there could be no place for inhibition. Arsenal had to remember their most recent past, along with the meaning of their place in English football for all the years of beautiful football - and accomplishment. But between such declarations and the performance the distance became bizarre.

Arsenal could scarcely have been more inhibited had they been strapped into straitjackets.

Talk of fatigue was to blur the issue - and made nonsense of claims that the modern player is a paragon of fitness and preparation. Arsenal have not been on some treadmill of their own, certainly not like the one that Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles endured, on farmyard pitches, and then came to the sapping surface of Wembley, when they won the World Cup for England - and then became the only Englishmen to do the double when carrying the European Cup two years later. Seven years ago Manchester United won the Champions' League and their historic treble without Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in the climactic moments.

It is into this perspective that you have to place Arsenal's latest effort - one that was so detached from the inventive brilliance and breathtaking boldness of their earlier dismissals of Real Madrid and Juventus. At least some of that football was required in Spain this week, but there was not a single glimpse of it. Apart from Thierry Henry's late run after the relief of Lehmann's heroics, the Villarreal goal was never threatened, and long before the end they were playing like a team who believed it never would be.

Of course, no one ever won a great trophy in one match. England's one World Cup victory came after an opening game against Uruguay which plunged the nation into a coma at least as deep as the one it suffered on Tuesday night before Arsenal finally staggered home.

Such a fate will be avoided next month only if Wenger refrains from any further fudging of the central issue. Arsenal, for one reason or another, were poorly prepared mentally. Just as the team breathed the philosophy of their coach and teacher quite perfectly in the Bernabeu and in the first leg against Juventus, in Villarreal it was if they had never known his influence.

Jose Antonio Reyes and Freddie Ljungberg delivered the coach's ultimate frustration. They kept surrendering the ball under the slightest pressure. For Cesc Fabregas, who at times was almost equally profligate, there was the excuse of tender years and limited experience. At times he seemed paralysed by nerves, a tendency which now the goal of the final has been reached will maybe disappear with the knowledge that the season has come down to just 90 minutes of incisive commitment.

If anyone can polish this jewel of optimism, it is surely Wenger. But the teacher has to be stringent. He cannot allow zones of comfort. He cannot permit alibis or even a hint of self-indulgence.

There is no shortage of evidence, after all, that anything can happen in a European Cup final. Britain's first winners, Celtic, reached the mountain top because their coach Jock Stein summoned the best spirit of a team in whom he believed deeply. Internazionale, a team stocked with Italian internationals and one of the great powers of the European game, were overwhelmed. Last spring in Istanbul Liverpool found a dimension that seemed not to exist when Milan cruised into their 3-0 lead.

Arsenal, with Henry so obliged to produce a definitive and, you have to increasingly suspect, final performance for his team, are right to retain the belief that they have the ability to hit such a streak of inspiration. But it will come only if the real reason for such a hazardous adventure in Spain is truly recognised. Honesty, and a commitment to play to their imaginative limits, now has to be total.