They were destroyed by Bobby Zamora in February; tonight they have to shut the door on Ronaldinho. All that stands between an Arsenal team rebuilt from ruins in less than four months, Arsène Wenger said yesterday, was the belief they could win the club's first European Cup against the most formidable team in the competition.
It has been some comeback, and it will be some finish in the Stade de France if the Arsenal defence that wilted against West Ham on 1 February stands up to the Fifa world player of the year and Samuel Eto'o, the most prolific goalscorer in Spain. As Wenger laid out his modest plans to beat Barcelona in Paris yesterday, the mind drifted back to that humbling at Highbury at the hands of West Ham and the scope of Arsenal's achievement since.
From Zamora and Matthew Etherington to Ronaldinho and Eto'o, via Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona, it has been a long journey from the night they plummeted to seventh in the Premiership. If Wenger watched the Barcelona training session last night, he would have seen their most famous Brazilian chip the ball with enough spin that it bounced off at right angles and dispatch a sequence of free-kicks into either corner of the net. Not for those with Arsenal loyalties and of a nervous disposition, even if Barelona had their own anxious moments when Eto'o was left dazed after being struck on the head by a shot from Lionel Messi at the same practice session.
If this is to be Wenger's supreme moment, he was calmer than you would expect any manager plotting the downfall of the most exciting club side Europe has seen in years. Ten days ago, the farewell to Highbury was wrought with emotion. Now comes the serious business as the two great issues of the club's recent history converge: the future of Thierry Henry and their habitual failure to succeed in the Champions' League. Both, it seems, could be settled tonight.
Wenger has always refused to accept that one game will decide Henry's future and yesterday he said that the club could "cope" with anything beyond tonight's match. "Like every other player, Thierry is determined to win," Wenger said, "and like every big player he is under pressure to be successful. But I believe we can reverse that theory as well: if the team play well then Thierry Henry will play well. I am focused on the game and what we want to achieve. What happens after that we will cope with. I believe that he wants to stay but I cannot answer that now."
Never has the Arsenal manager seemed so gripped by the notion of his own team's destiny and the conviction that they can confound a team built around an awe-inspiring group of modern footballers. For a man so habitually absorbed in the details of every match, every player and every dispute, his arguments concerned themselves with a much broader, profound belief in the new team he has fashioned this season.
"As top-level competitors we should be able to go out there on the day and say, 'We are just going to do it'. And that is what we will try to do," Wenger said. "I don't know if they are better than Real Madrid or Villarreal, I just believe if we are at our best we can beat them. That is what we want to achieve.
"I have believed in every team that I have ever managed and, although I have sometimes been alone in that belief in this team, this season, I always thought there was something special in this team. There is humility, strength, togetherness. They are ahead of schedule but they are ready to fulfil their promise."
Wenger might have more than 22 years in club management, a degree in economics from Strasbourg University and three Premiership titles - and yet still there is little that can have prepared him for the night in which he can join a very select group of managers. Sir Matt Busby, Bob Paisley, Brian Clough, Tony Barton, Joe Fagan, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafael Benitez have led English clubs to the European Cup for Wenger tonight must seem like the best chance he will ever have of landing a place among English football's aristocracy.
The distraction of the Norwegian linesman Ole Hermann Borgan posing in a Barcelona shirt for his local newspaper was not a concern. Wenger recalled how his Monaco side's 1992 Uefa Cup final took place the night after the Bastia stadium disaster. His players spent the evening before the match making calls to check friends and relatives who had been at the game had escaped unhurt.
Tonight Wenger looks set to return to Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole in defence in place of Philippe Senderos and Mathieu Flamini, and play Alexander Hleb and Jose Antonio Reyes on the wings. Freddie Ljungberg will be deployed behind Henry this is the more recognisable Arsenal, but not the side that fought so heroically in the early stages of the Champions' League knock-out phase.
There will be no special plans to accommodate Ronaldinho, although Wenger did concede that it would be a "big game for Emmanuel Eboué". Gloriously understated, because the first time the 22-year-old from Ivory Coast turns to shut down the Brazilian on the left wing he will need to remember absolutely every quality they taught him at the Arsenal academy.
"A joy to watch," was Wenger's description of Ronaldinho, but he says that he will not order his fellow countryman Gilberto Silva to dedicate himself to smothering the influence of the greatest player in the world. "He [Ronaldinho] plays against you on the left and he is a dangerous player but he also drifts into the middle of the park," Wenger said. "We don't do man-marking, it will be down to the team to defend against him, not just Eboué."
Although he has reinstated his two England internationals, there remains the accusation that this Arsenal team, managed by a Frenchman, have more in common with the host country than north London. "I am proud we are playing for the English Premiership," Wenger said, "it is the country I have lived in for 10 years and I am proud to represent England."
It would not be "Henry against Ronaldinho" Wenger said, but an act of will by his team to believe in themselves just one more time. And when you consider how far they have come in four months, it is not hard to understand why their manager believes tonight will be Arsenal's night.
Galaxy of stars in the City of Light: Guide to tonight's probable starting line-ups in Paris
1 JENS LEHMANN (goalkeeper, 36, German, at World Cup)
Outstanding season won him German No 1 shirt. Goalless in 745 Champions' League minutes.
27 EMMANUEL EBOUE (right-back, 22, Ivorian, WC)
Revelation after replacing Lauren. Exuberant in attack, firm in defence.
28 KOLO TOURE (centre-back, 25, Ivorian, WC)
Grown into a commanding figure with club and country. Scored only goal of semi-final v Villarreal.
23 SOL CAMPBELL (centre-back, 31, English, WC)
Back, but is he fit, mentally and physically? Among the best when he is, despite patchy distribution.
3 ASHLEY COLE (left-back, 25, English, WC)
Missed most of the season, and may leave in the summer, but too important to omit.
13 ALEXANDER HLEB (right-midfield, 25, Belorussian)
Took time to adapt to Premiership, but developed into tidy, skilful, clever player.
8 FREDDIE LJUNGBERG (midfield, 29, Swedish, WC)
Fitful season but has come back to form. Hard-working and a shrewd off-the-ball runner.
19 GILBERTO SILVA (midfield, 29, Brazilian, WC)
A busy night beckons for the midfield anchor. Suffocated Riquelme in semi-finals.
15 CESC FABREGAS (midfield, 19, Spanish, WC)
Former Barcelona youth player controversially lured to London. Confirming rich potential.
9 JOSE ANTONIO REYES (left-midfield, 22, Spanish, WC)
Pace may win him a place over Pires. Inconsistent but has done well in Europe. Faced Barça as Seville player.
14 THIERRY HENRY (attack, 28, French, WC)
Ronaldinho's rival for title of world's best. Parisian-born. Is this his last match for Arsenal?
1 VICTOR VALDES (goalkeeper, age 24, Spanish)
Only uncapped player in the side but a good shot-stopper who came through the ranks.
23 OLEGUER (right-back, 26, Spanish)
Versatile defender in fifth year at Barça who should edge out the more attacking Belletti.
4 RAFAEL MARQUEZ (centre-back, 27, Mexican, at World Cup)
Mexico captain and an astute defender in his seventh season in Europe. Previously at Monaco.
5 CARLES PUYOL (centre-back, 28, Spanish, WC)
Captain, and a Catalan, the soul of the club. Key figure with club and country. Good tackler.
12 GIO VAN BRONCKHORST (left-back, 31, Dutch, WC)
Peripheral figure when at Highbury, but has rediscovered his form at the Nou Camp.
20 DECO (midfield, 28, Portuguese, WC)
Seeking second title having been playmaker in Jose Mourinho's 2004 champions, Porto.
15 EDMILSON (midfield, 29, Brazilian, WC)
Defensive midfielder who can be expected to track Fabregas.
24 ANDRES INIESTA (midfield, 22, Spanish, WC)
Outstanding in both semis against Milan, came through the ranks.
8 LUDOVIC GIULY (right-attack, 29, French)
Scored only goal of the tie against Milan. Runner-up with Monaco in 2004. Replacement for the 18-year-old Messi, who has not played for two months.
9 SAMUEL ETO'O (centre-forward, 25, Cameroonian)
Three-time African Footballer of the Year, Chelsea target, allowed to leave by Real Madrid.
10 RONALDINHO (left-attack, 26, Brazilian, WC)
World Footballer of the Year expected to light up Paris tonight and the World Cup finals next month. No pressure then.Reuse content