Wenger faces reality, Ferguson ignores it

The Arsenal manager can still cure his European ills but James Lawton detects a vein of fantasy at Old Trafford
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The Independent Online

As Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson came to terms, or didn't, with another swift dismissal from Europe - and life under the shadow of Jose Mourinho - there was a rare winner in the vital matter of engaging with reality. It was Wenger.

As Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson came to terms, or didn't, with another swift dismissal from Europe - and life under the shadow of Jose Mourinho - there was a rare winner in the vital matter of engaging with reality. It was Wenger.

So often in this situation the Arsenal manager has been the dutiful sheepdog minding a vulnerable flock. But plainly the team's failure truly to compete with Bayern Munich has shaken him deeply.

In Germany his dismay was not concealed. This week, when the repair job failed so profoundly at Highbury, he said, with quite significant emphasis, that indeed he did not wish to escape from reality. Arsenal, as currently constituted, were simply not equipped to win the Champions' League.

Plainly, the same was true of Manchester United, but instead of facing up to this, Ferguson retreated, so to say, into the future.

He talked of the need for experience, pointing out that Milan had a huge edge in this area with the likes of Paolo Maldini and Cafu and Alessandro Nesta. Yet Ferguson had sent Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville out into San Siro. Rio Ferdinand is a veteran of a World Cup, a European Championship and a Champions' League semi-final. Ruud van Nistelrooy's problem was not a lack of experience - Ferguson lauds him as Europe's most reliable swordsman - but a palpable lack of reasonable sharpness.

United lost for the reason that Wenger acknowledged in the case of his own team. They were not good enough, not at least as they were set up for these ties, and if few men are more secure in their reputation than Ferguson, it is also true that he cannot lightly evade some serious criticism of his handling of the challenge presented by Milan.

At Old Trafford he sent Wayne Rooney alone against the brains trust of Milan's defence, an aberration that abandoned United's best chance - a sustained assault on a defence which, for all its accumulation of wisdom, has to be most at risk against intelligently applied pace and power.

It was a yielding of home advantage in the first leg that always threatened to be destructive.

This will surely fuel the argument that the Ferguson genius for motivation - and resurrection - has run its course. Perhaps when the smoke has cleared from what threatens to be possibly his most disappointing season, he too may decide that with the signings of Rooney and Ronaldo he has made his last big plays, and that he has done his best work and gone beyond his best time.

If this proves to be so, we will see not the limits of one man's empire but the end of a whole era of football, when it was still possible for an individual, if he was strong enough, and sufficiently ruthless, to shape the entire game to his will.

Wenger's crisis is more subtle. The younger man, haunted by his failure to match his rival's great Champions' League triumph in 1999, is between teams now, as Ferguson was, with unbreakable confidence, three times in the past.

His greatest need is moral leadership at the heart of the team. The lack of this was killing against Bayern. Patrick Vieira has become a shell and the longer he stays the more counter-productive will be his presence. Inevitably, though, Wenger is a prisoner of his own stupendous achievements. There was an inkling of this in the aftermath of Wednesday's failure. Radio call-in hosts, working as the technicians cleared away some of the apparatus of media coverage, were already dealing with the lunatics claiming that Wenger had to go, that he had taken Arsenal as far as he could. Where, you had to wonder, was that, precisely? Last spring it was to the stars. Now, presumably, it was to the road of perdition.

As is usually the case, the truth lies somewhere in between. With the new stadium on the horizon, with young players of the quality of Mathieu Flamini, Cesc Fabregas and Gaël Clichy acquiring vital experience, Wenger's creative juices still have plenty of stimulation. The key is his willingness, and that of his audience, to measure the progress that has been made at Arsenal under his regime, and see that the freakish emergence of Chelsea should not distort any understanding of quite what has been achieved.

The reasons for Chelsea's current strength are self-evident. Not only is Roman Abramovich football's ultimate benefactor, he also appears to be content to put the club's future in the hands of a plainly brilliant coach. On the face of it, and in football terms at least, Abramovich is not bedevilled by any ego-driven need to meddle. In this, Mourinho has football's dream scenario.

Denied such largesse, and an operating freedom to cherry-pick any arresting talent that moves, Wenger can only fall back on his instinct for identifying outstanding talent and nurturing it in a way that has been one of the wonders of English football. Maybe if he had a choice, he would choose the vast resources of Mourinho, but his own assets remain huge and inspiring. He should be encouraged to remember that in some inevitably difficult weeks, not least in the Highbury he so magically transformed.

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