New respect as Wenger's men flush travel sickness out of their system
Sunday 29 September 2002
In every campaign, successful or the opposite, there are matches that stick out as turning points one way or the other. If Arsenal manage to go further in the Champions' League this season than ever before, Wednesday's stunning 4-0 victory away to PSV Eindhoven will be an occasion to run the highlighter through.
It was not so much a departure from form – which had been impressive enough to dismiss virtually all Premiership opposition until that point – but a breaking down of what appeared to be the mental barrier afflicting the team once they left these shores.
Dennis Bergkamp, it had become clear, was not the only one with a fear of flying. For the first two seasons of the Champions' League, the second of which became a run to the Uefa Cup final, there was no great problem: only two away games out of 10 were lost, one of which, against Deportivo in La Coruña, was a last-minute defeat of no consequence. In fact, it was poor form at the temporary home of Wembley (two wins in six games) that meant elimination at the first group stage each year.
The following season, 2000-01, was when the difficulties began. Heavy defeats in the inhospitable surroundings of Donetsk and Moscow were followed by a deceptive 1-0 victory in Lyons and then a run of games that finished 0-1, 0-1, 0-1, 0-1, 1-3, 0-2, 1-1, 0-1. The most notable aspect of those performances was how rarely Arsenal looked like scoring goals; even last season, the pace in attack, the passing and movement that brought a Double in England, seemed to be left behind at Luton Airport.
Suddenly last week, however, after Borussia Dortmund had been patiently undone in the opening group match at Highbury, it all came together again. "It was important, because we were always questioned about our capability of winning a game away from home in Europe," Wenger said on Friday. "When you hear always the same thing, it slides slowly in your mind and maybe put us down a little bit, even if I never doubted we were able to win away. But I must say the result has been very good for us, because in my opinion we won against a good team, not an average one. That has a significance, and the players felt that as well."
Meeting an average team would be a bonus. The rigorous qualifying system for the Champions' League has ensured that few of those reach even the first stage these days, as Basle – supposedly the weakest of the 32 – proved in their draw at Liverpool, while Maccabi Haifa were beating Olympiakos, the 6-2 conquerors of Leverkusen.
Wenger has noted that the competing clubs are used to running away with most games in their domestic competitions, and therefore approach Champions' League matches in a positive style.
"You see that teams are used to dominating matches in their championship and so when you play away they come at you. You need to be really on top of your game, and when you have two teams like that, you have attacking football. It's top-level football all the time. So you feel if you have a moment of weakness, you can be punished all the time, whereas in the domestic game you can get away with it. There are some good teams there – Manchester United, Real Madrid, Valencia, Milan – and it looks as though the strong teams are doing well."
Will Arsenal be meeting one of them in the final at Old Trafford come May? Wenger is too experienced to offer that particular hostage to fortune: "That's instant judgement. When you win 4-0 away, people say: 'They are strong contenders'. We want to be. But it's so important to do well in your own league. Then you feel strong and go [to Europe] as leaders of your league and get respect, which makes a big, big difference."
From his countrymen Auxerre, third in the French league last season and joint leaders this time with the newly promoted dark horses Nice, he expects something a little different: "They are a typical counterattacking team, who will wait for us to kill us. They play always the same game, based on [Djibril] Cissé, who is lightning-quick, he is a real sprinter who plays football.
" He's already in the French national team and is only 20 years old, and he certainly will be a great player. Certainly. So I expect a game where they let us take the ball and try to hit us on the break. But it is a big, big game, because winning it would 90 per cent qualify us for the second stage."
What Arsenal's manager does not expect is any repetition of the dismal racial abuse that has been seen and heard in so many European games and marred the occasion in Eindhoven. For that, much thanks.
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