It is like comparing big-game hunters with a luckless poacher who would consider himself fortunate if he could just snare a rabbit: Arsenal, the seven-times FA Cup winners and seven-times runners-up; Middlesbrough, the club who have not triumphed in a knock-out competition since they won the Amateur Cup in 1895 and 1998.
Arsène Wenger is acutely conscious of the former statistic, and laughingly explains that he is not aware of the latter. But it is not simply those facts that will provide the necessary encouragement to his players that should confirm their presence in the final again on 4 May by defeating Middlesbrough this afternoon. It is more a question of them being determined to right what is still regarded throughout the club as a terrible wrong.
Though the Premiership title takes precedence, followed by the Champions' League, in the Highbury order of things, that defeat by Liverpool at the Millennium Stadium last year still chafes irritatingly at the neck of players whom it might be considered would regard the FA Cup as an anachronism of less than total relevance.
Players like the Cameroon midfielder-turned-defender Lauren. "We should have won last year," he declares. That is why it is strong in our hearts [he points expressively to the said organ] to do it this year." Almost imperceptibly, performers like Lauren, who played in last year's semi-final but not the final, are blossoming in the north London botanical gardens of football, even if they tend to be slightly obscured, as yet, by more exotic, advanced specimens.
Last Saturday, when he converted a penalty winner against Tottenham, with first-choice penalty-taker Thierry Henry off the field, was his 35th start of the season. It is an appearance rate only inferior to Patrick Vieira, Henry, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Sylvain Wiltord and is all the more meritorious considering that his natural position is central or right-side midfield.
It has taken the Cameroon international time to acclimatise himself to Arsenal ways after Wenger signed him for £7.2m from Real Mallorca two years ago, having been named Player of the Tournament in the African Nations' Cup and runner-up African Player of the Year. He scored in the Gunners' first home game of the season, against Liverpool, but then departed for the Olympic Games, where Cameroon won gold, and when he returned suffered injury problems.
This season, though, his fortunes have improved spectacularly. "It's been a good year for me," says the player whose full name is Bisan-Etame Mayer Laureano. "I have played more games, which helps, and that has made me more confident. And my English is better. I understand more. It takes time when you come to this country to be involved and settle in."
Lauren, who admired Ian Wright from afar in his formative years, adds: "The first six months were difficult. But the other players helped me, because they have been through it themselves. But I know I can improve." Lauren, who on Wednesday will join up with his national side in a pre-World Cup friendly against Austria, has even received the assistance of Lee Dixon, whose position on the right side of defence he has largely usurped.
"He [Lauren] has played in a new position and you must count the first six months as an adaptation period," says Wenger. "You know that you get the best out of a player like that in the second part of the season." While Dennis Bergkamp, Vieira and Henry, among others, are pivotal to the current team and the potential match-winners, it is players such as Lauren and the Brazilian midfielder Edu, a man of burgeoning quality, that Wenger considers are crucial to Arsenal's future success.
That is why, despite Sir Alex Ferguson spending around £50m on Juan Veron and Ruud van Nistelrooy last summer, having just won the championship by 10 points, the Frenchman was not unduly troubled. "I think that 80 per cent of the squad, particularly young players like Lauren, Cole and Henry, are at a stage where they can improve and can definitely be stronger. We will go for stability and it will be even better next season. I believe this team will achieve a lot this year, and next year we want to win even more. I'm very positive about that. Next season, we will see Francis Jeffers, who's had a difficult first season, but I'm a strong believer in him, and also Jermaine Pennant, Jeremie Aliadière, John Halls. We have so many good young players."
To balance, and help nurture, that emerging talent, of course, it is important that Wenger retains such personnel as Vieira, about whom there will inevitably be a summer of intense speculation once the World Cup is over. Wenger believes he will stay. Vieira says he would like to stay and see out his contract. There are some disbelieving noises from the assembled media. Wenger smiles that knowing smile of a man who knows rather more than his interrogators. "I see that I am more confident than you," he says. "For me it has always been clear, but in the summer, we will see. I am very confident we will keep the team together."
The value of Vieira has been all the more enhanced by a belated policy of self-control. Tottenham last week gave him plenty of opportunity to retaliate. But he was a veritable dove among hawks. "You could see that he didn't react at all. How has he achieved that? I think it is his intelligence. If you look at Patrick's behaviour the first day he arrived and now, it has improved tremendously." Wenger insisted that the onset of peacenik Patrick was none of his doing. "Patrick realised on his own that he had to keep more control of himself. We can all be upset one minute and lose it, and then some people go home and think 'that was not right. Next time I will change it'."
Four years without a trophy has encouraged some critics to contend that Arsenal are becoming serial underachievers. It is a somewhat harsh verdict by any calculation. But Wenger is not unduly piqued by the accusation. "In the last five years, we have reached the FA Cup semi-finals four times and the final twice. That cannot be coincidence," he insists. "Overall, we have done tremendously well in this competition.
"We want to go in the final again and win it, because we were very frustrated last year. But we know we have a tough game against Middlesbrough first. We are favourites, but we are not stupid." And say what you like about the "Professor" of Highbury university, where everything is done by degrees, nobody could accuse him of that.Reuse content