Professor of philosophy still addicted to winning

The record run: Wenger swallows dismay of European elimination and wallows in the title glory of his history men
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The Independent Football

Two matches from Invincibility; and with due deference to Fulham and Leicester City, nobody who loves football should be rooting too hard for either of those teams to beat Arsenal over the course of the next seven days. Let them have an honourable draw by all means, but not the victory that would deprive a superb squad - and manager - of a prize that might not be achieved again in our lifetime.

In the days of 42 League games, Arsenal's 1930s hat-tricksters lost seven, eight and nine matches respectively; for the Busby Babes to win the 1957 championship with "only" six defeats was regarded as heroic; even Tottenham's Double team lost seven times. Not until the more defensive modern era did Leeds United (1969) and Liverpool (1988, from 40 games) bring the figure down to two losses, before Arsenal themselves came closest of all 13 years ago, their colours lowered just once, at Stamford Bridge.

That, of course, was George Graham's team of roundheads, their greatest strength a defence that conceded only 18 goals. If any team are to improve on their record, then Graham would be quite happy for Arsène Wenger's cavaliers to do so. So should connoisseurs of sport everywhere, so consistently uplifting has their football been this season.

Were Fulham to improve this afternoon on the goalless draw they achieved at Highbury in November, there would inevitably be a sense of anti-climax as the Premiership trophy is handed over in north London on Saturday. Should that happen, Wenger insists, he will swallow disappointment almost as bitter as that of losing to Chelsea in the Champions' League and remind his players that winning a national championship is still something to be savoured.

"In a big club, when you can't enjoy success you are in trouble," he reflected during a long and philosophical interview on Friday. "There are big clubs waiting 50 years to win the championship, clubs who spend as much as we do. So I said to the players that if we can't enjoy it, we're really foolish. When you see the trophy going away, it's terrible. So for me it's the biggest of all."

Bigger than becoming the champions of Europe? There is an element of an intelligent man trying to persuade himself so when Wenger characterises the revamped Champions' League as "a cup competition", arguing with reference to this season's finalists: "You can be a good side and win the European Cup - of course Monaco and Porto are good sides - but to win the championship without losing a game you must be a fantastic one. I saw Milan when they won the Italian championship this year and they were over the moon. They won the European Cup last year, and this time it was more important to win the Scudetto."

Surely the converse applies; in the past, the tendency for Arsenal and United the season after winning the Premiership has inevitably been to focus on Europe. For the London side, however, there is the additional incentive of retaining the title, which neither Graham nor Wenger has ever managed. The latter will therefore insist next season that his players do not put all their eggs in the European basket, while admitting: "You want always what you don't have."

Thankfully for everyone at Highbury, that does not apply to a manager believing the grass might be greener in Italy or Spain. Assured last week by Arsenal's vice-chairman, David Dein (who also called him a miracle worker) that he has a job for life, Wenger confirmed: "I love the club and it is very difficult at the moment to envisage being somewhere else. I wouldn't want to be an international manager, playing six to 10 games a year. At Arsenal we play that in a week. But I don't know for how long I'll be a manager. I started at 33 and now I'm 54. At 34, if you would have asked me if I'd be in a job at 55, I'd have said, 'No chance'. I have said a manager has a career of 20 years, so I should already have stopped!"

Compared to the knighted (and currently benighted) Sir Alex Ferguson, 62, and Sir Bobby Robson, 71, Wenger is a mere stripling, who nevertheless shares their love of the game and the job. "Yes, it is an addiction. Tell the guy who has been out there every day with players to stay home and watch television and read the newspapers and of course he'll miss it. I wouldn't like to live without football. You start playing aged 10 or 11 and are still in at 55 - it's the biggest addiction you can have."

Like every other football manager on this earth, he will face new challenges as soon as a new season begins. "I love to win and to improve. I like to think I'll be a better manager next year than this year, get more out of the team and achieve things never done before. But I don't believe in miracles. I believe in quality work, quality decisions, quality commitment.

"To push the whole thing higher up, that keeps you going. I have a responsibility to push the club and team as high as I can, and I feel I'm not at the end of the road. We built the training ground, we are building a new stadium and we are building a different team to play quality football. The club are going up but of course it is not easy to keep them up there, especially when you are facing a super-rich club like Chelsea. And what will they do now? They will buy eight new players."

For most football folk, one new coach and eight new players will still not necessarily add up to a team, let alone the sort of team - and team spirit - that Wenger has been able to construct. It is another reason to cherish Arsenal's success, built over seven-and-a-half years rather than overnight, even if the Chelsea challenge has enlivened what would otherwise have been a rather dull season.

Wenger makes a shrewd point, however, that Chelsea, unlike other clubs, can afford simply to pay off underachievers on huge contracts: "Every year they can change the mistakes they made the year before. And at some stage they'll get it right."

Asked to pick out the high points of the campaign, he does not even mention the 5-1 drubbing of Internazionale on their own turf or any of Thierry Henry's magical goals, settling instead for the FA Cup tie at Portsmouth (also won 5-1), and the second half at home to Liverpool on Good Friday, when the whole season suddenly looked like falling apart. "We have had some good games," he said with half a smile. Two more and The Professor will become The History Man.

THIRTY-SIX DOWN... NOW ONLY TWO STAND IN THE WAY OF HISTORY

Moritz Volz (Fulham)

Beating Arsenal is something that everyone is talking about here. It would be great if we were the team who stopped them getting the record today. It's a big challenge for us because they've shown what a good side they are by going this long without getting beaten, but it's a very exciting prospect. Having been an Arsenal player myself for four years, perhaps afterwards I might feel bad, but at the moment all I care about is winning. I want them to do well overall, but their run has to end at some stage and I hope that we are the ones who can do it, especially as we are at home. It's been such a long season for them that I think they will be trying to give some players a rest. What can happen when you change a team around is that it takes away a bit of the momentum, and we'll be hoping they won't be quite as fluent as usual. Having said that, they are still playing for their record. I think it's really keeping them motivated. It will be a tough game, but I think we have got a very good chance.

Lilian Nalis (Leicester City)

Having been relegated already, a lot of people might think that we haven't got a lot left to play for. Well, those people are wrong. We still have pride at stake and, best of all, the opportunity of trying to beat Arsenal at Highbury on the last day of the season next Saturday. If they are still unbeaten by then, imagine what an opportunity we will have. Obviously, it will be one of the toughest assignments ever for us, but we believe we can do it. We certainly haven't got anything to lose, so we can just go out there and enjoy ourselves. We have always played better when we have been relaxed, so that might help us at the home of the champions. We definitely have the players to beat Arsenal: guys like Paul Dickov, Marcus Bent, Muzzy Izzet and goalkeeper Ian Walker could grace any Premiership team. I would guess they will probably be gone in the summer, so I think that they will be extra keen to give the Leicester fans a good send-off. We all know we can match this Arsenal team because we drew 1-1 with them at home. I guess the question now is whether we can go one better. I believe the answer is yes.

Interviews: Alex Hayes

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