Arsène Wenger faces Manchester United tomorrow for the first time since August's 8-2 disaster, but it is Arsenal's league position rather than revenge that is his focus. Arsenal could conceivably finish the weekend seven points behind fourth place. Wenger believes that a failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a "disaster", and that is his immediate motivation.
The Gunners have qualified for the Champions League group stage for the last 14 seasons. With Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea both ahead of them in the table, though, that run is under serious threat. "Disaster" was the word for a failure to re-qualify, he agreed. "For me it would be," he said yesterday. "Because I want to play with the best. And we want to be in there, in the top four, and to play in the Champions League, and anything else would not be good enough."
That fear of Europa League football is more of a motivation to beat United tomorrow than any lingering memories of that trauma at Old Trafford. "What is important?" Wenger said. "You do not play a football game for revenge, you play a football game because you want to win."
Wenger is famously forward-looking; he has said before that he does not know where his winners' medals are, even from the Invincibles season. Characteristically, he does not obsess over five-month-old results, and the demands of the game are the same as ever.
"We have a psychological barrier to climb always," he said. "I believe every game is a new life – you can do well, you can do bad. We just want to take this opportunity to do well. The result in August has nothing to do with that, we cannot wipe it out. That will not be an excuse not to beat them. It is over. You focus on what is in front of you and you try to do as well as you can."
When pressed to look back on that infamous defeat, Wenger said that Arsenal were drained from their mid-week victory in Udinese in the Champions League play-off. "We were weak on the day but I knew as well we were dead because we were 1-0 down at Udinese, [and] we had to fight to come back in the game," he said, "it was 33 degrees of heat, a really hot night, and it was a very difficult game."
As bad as the result was, Wenger does not see it as the most upsetting game of his tenure at Arsenal. "Not at all," he said. "It was emotionally difficult, but it was not a final. If you lose the final of the Champions League, it has another meaning than one game. When we lost at Manchester United we had still 35 games to play, you know. It was three points lost in a humiliating way but we can come back."
Of his resumed rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson tomorrow, Wenger said his United counterpart will stay in his job even longer than he will at Arsenal. "He will manage until he dies, and I think he will be 100," Wenger jokingly predicted. "My motivation is to beat him. To last the longest is not a record. Of course I will never beat his record. But to win the game on Sunday is my motivation."
Regarding his own long-term future, Wenger said that he will keep on working for as long as he can, even if he will not always be a front-line manager. "I will never retire," he promised. "I will maybe do a different job, not every day out there with the football team. But I will work, that's for sure. I don't like to get up in the morning and have nothing to do."
Arsenal will not have their full-strength side available tomorrow. Mikel Arteta is injured, while Thierry Henry and Thomas Vermaelen are unlikely to be ready. "Considering I have 10 players out I cannot feel sorry too much for other teams who have a few injuries," he said of any such problems United might have. "Unfortunately I think we are in a worse situation than anyone on the injury front. It happens to them, it happens to us, you have to deal with it without looking for excuses."
This does not mean, though, that he will necessarily bring in a new defender this month. "Football is not a supermarket where you go in there and say 'Give me a left-back please, and a right-back and a centre-back'," he insisted. "We have to find the players better [than] what we have."
With a rather broad sense of being picked on, Wenger also believes that media treatment of Arsenal is unbalanced, given a lack of attention paid to a perceived dive from Nathan Dyer on Sunday. "If [Robert] Pires once dived against Portsmouth, OK? For six months it was a story in the newspapers. Dyer dived on Sunday and nobody said a word. You cannot say it is exactly the same and it doesn't matter. If it doesn't matter when Dyer dives, why does it matter when Pires dives?"