As Champions' League football resumes this week, one hardy annual will spring up again: could this be Arsenal's year at last?
As Champions' League football resumes this week, one hardy annual will spring up again: could this be Arsenal's year at last? In the old European Cup days, there were only two occasions on which they even qualified, 20 years apart, each ending in defeat at Highbury as soon as any sort of opposition (Ajax in 1972 and Benfica in 1991) materialised. Under Arsène Wenger, and the competition's new format, it is now seven successive challenges, none stretching as far as a semi-final.
If there was a "now or never" feeling, that time appeared to be a year ago, when Wenger's team were cruising past Celta Vigo into the quarter-final, running up a seven-point lead in the Premiership and completing 10 months without a significant domestic defeat. Meanwhile, other Champions' League high-fliers were crashing to earth, apparently opening up a passage to the final in Gelsenkirchen. Chelsea, as we know, blocked it off before undergoing their own spectacular fall, and Arsenal's "now" became "never" as far as their more pessimistic followers were concerned.
So this time much of the pressure seems to be off. Chelsea are playing the sweetest music, Arsenal are third fiddle, and this week Man-chester United and even Liverpool share the spotlight and the country's hopes. Pipping United in their current form to finish as Premiership runners-up would be seen as a good achievement, and one over the old enemy, while the transitional element to Wenger's side allied to the promise of a gleaming and lucrative new stadium offers hope for the longer term.
A relaxed approach, then, to Tuesday night's challenge away to Bayern Munich, which might just meet Wenger's demands for optimum mental preparation: "What is difficult in football is that you only play well when you are both relaxed and motivated, and that mixture is very difficult to find. When you're not relaxed, you don't do well."
The manager was speaking specifically of his German goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, confirmed as playing in Munich in defiance of any suggestion that hype over his bitter rivalry with Oliver Kahn would prove a distraction to the player and the team. Germany is divided between the two, along much the same lines as pro- and anti-Bayern feeling; the new national team manager, Jürgen Klinsmann, has so far taken the tactful way out by sharing appearances between them, as England's Ron Greenwood once did with Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence - satisfying neither and upsetting both.
Added complications are Kahn's fiery character and colourful personal life, plus Lehmann's perceived dip in form. Wenger dropped him before Christmas after he conceded a late winning goal at Liverpool, and only restored him as first choice a fortnight ago, having been hugely impressed by his reaction to adversity: "I observed him well. And I like the fact that instead of doing just a little bit less, he did a fraction more, every day. I didn't push him but he wanted to do more work.
"He's a guy who under pressure responds very well. They are educated like that in German football, challenging your attitude. For a while I felt his confidence had dropped just a fraction, but when he came back at Aston Villa you could see he was top-focus again. That's why he is where he is, it's down to quality and attitude when your back is to the wall and you show you are ready to fight for it.
"Also, he's 34 years old. When you're 20, you stand there and shiver in a big game and if it doesn't go well, you don't know how to come back. When you're over 30, you get used to it and deal well with that."
With Francesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini 20 or under, and Jose Antonio Reyes, Gaël Clichy and Robin van Persie only one year older, there has been an occasional shiver round Highbury since the unbeaten run ground to a bitter end at Old Trafford last autumn. The other deficiency Bayern's coach, Felix Magath, claims to have spotted is a weakness in defence. "I cannot contradict him, because we have conceded 31 goals," Wenger admitted. "But we have scored 63. So on Wednesday night I want good attack and defence."
Each of those areas will be weakened - and the average age of the side lowered still further - by the absence of Dennis Bergkamp and Sol Campbell respectively, and neither Ashley Cole nor Edu has more than a 50 per cent chance of playing. It will be a bonus if relative strength is levelled up a little by the absence of Bayern's midfield string-puller Michael Ballack, who missed yesterday's 5-0 thumping of Borussia Dortmund with a thigh strain.
Wenger, we can be assured, would have been studying a football video rather than Dirty Den's demise on Friday evening. After the FA Cup draw with Sheffield United, he will not get around to Bayern until today, but has already watched them "once or twice" via satellite dish: "You know one thing against Germans, it's difficult, because they're physically always strong, mentally always strong. And Bayern have always had the individual quality that can make a difference."
A decade ago, he might have become their head coach, approached - no, not tapped up, he insisted - after leading Monaco to a Champions' League semi-final. His club would not release him. When he took Arsenal to the Olympic Stadium for the only time, four years ago, a 1-0 defeat was not fatal; and in the circumstances, it would not look a bad result this week.
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