Wenger faith is facing its greatest test

Manager calls for passion and character in a landmark week for Arsenal as Everton and Chelsea stand in way of glory
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A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and while much of Arsenal's football last autumn came into that category it is the club's more traditional quality of sheer cussedness that is required for two games in the next 48 hours that will determine the shape of their season. The European dream having become a bad dream again in Valencia last Wednesday, a group of weary-looking players, some of them less than fully fit, must lift themselves immediately for matches against Everton in the Premiership at Highbury today and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in Tuesday's FA Cup sixth-round replay. Beauty is unlikely to come into it.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and while much of Arsenal's football last autumn came into that category it is the club's more traditional quality of sheer cussedness that is required for two games in the next 48 hours that will determine the shape of their season. The European dream having become a bad dream again in Valencia last Wednesday, a group of weary-looking players, some of them less than fully fit, must lift themselves immediately for matches against Everton in the Premiership at Highbury today and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in Tuesday's FA Cup sixth-round replay. Beauty is unlikely to come into it.

Arsenal's first League and Cup Double, in 1971, was forged from the unpromising material of a 5-0 defeat away to Stoke City, after which the team won 11 and drew three of their next 14 games; the 1998 Double stemmed from losing a League Cup semi-final at Chelsea (with a full first team in those days), the championship being sealed 16 unbeaten matches later with victory over Everton; today's opponents were also involuntarily in on the celebrations a year ago, elimination from Europe having sparked a run of 11 straight wins to finish the season, the last of them 4-3 against the Mersey- siders as the two trophies were paraded round Highbury.

But has any of the capacity for self-renewal disappeared with the retirement or absence of such never-say-die characters as Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and David Seaman, men who fully understand the demands of the English season? The other difficulty this time is that the first two tests come so close together and involve defeating sides currently among the Premiership's top six. Even Arsène Wenger admits that prospects at Stamford Bridge will depend on today's result, acknowledging that the psychological damage of a second failure in a week might prove too much: "The only way we will be successful is by beating Everton. It is important for our minds to go into the Chelsea game by beating Everton at home.

"It's an interesting test of character, not of capability. I have 100 per cent faith they'll come through that. I believe this team have a special togetherness. They're all very down at the moment because they are all very ambitious. If you'd told me with eight games to go we'd be in this position, I'd have taken it. But this is the biggest test of the season, because how you respond after a major disappointment is always a test. To make a big career in this sport, resistance to stress and disappointment is very important. The way you come back is very important, and these players have done it before."

Ask Arsenal supporters which game they would rather win and the answer would probably be Tuesday's: firstly because it is Chelsea; secondly because the winners will be strong favourites to win the Cup; and thirdly because any lapse against Everton could be remedied later. The suspicion is that neither the manager nor the players share that priority. Wenger speaks with appreciation, but incredulity, of the atmosphere at the home tie against Chelsea two weeks ago: "The stadium was the loudest I have seen, a fantastic atmosphere. But three days later against Roma it was quiet."

His squad need to share that passion for the competition, even if they lay some of the blame for failure in Europe on having to play important home matches against Ajax and Roma (both 1-1 draws) immediately after Cup ties against Manchester United and Chelsea. The generally supportive club chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, having estimated lost revenue from the Champions' League at £10m, might also point out that there is a seven-figure sum for going on to win the Cup.

Wenger will be asking him for money this summer, however many cups are sitting in the Highbury trophy cabinet. His preferred strategy has always been to unearth a Patrick Vieira or a Nicolas Anelka rather than lashing out too often for an established figure like Sylvain Wiltord or Francis Jeffers – who was signed to score the scruffy goals that continental artists sometimes seem to scorn.

But in choosing defensive players that has not worked. Igor Stepanovs and Pascal Cygan have not come on, as was horribly obvious again in the latter's performance on Wednesday; the rumour was that when the good folk of Valencia were constructing huge papier-maché figures to set fire to as part of their Las Fallas celebrations, Arsenal supporters were suggesting Cygan as a model.

Few of them can understand why the Frenchman was signed, at 28, while the promising Matthew Upson, 23, was allowed to leave. Celebrations of the dawning of spring tend to coincide uncomfortably with Arsenal's elimination from Europe. "We have had absolutely no luck in Europe this season," Wenger maintains, which is debatable, even allowing for the recent crop of injuries. Failures to beat teams of 10 men, scoring no more than six goals in the second group stage and winning one match of the last nine, were all critical factors.

Yes, the margins are thin, as Real Madrid of all teams should acknowledge this week. As they clung on for the required victory in Moscow on Wednesday, the width of a goalpost preserved the three points, without which Borussia Dortmund would have qualified ahead of them to meet Man-chester United. For all Sir Alex Ferguson's bullishness about the quarter-final draw, he, like every other coach left in the competition, would surely have preferred that outcome.

United must now do things the hard way, much as they did while winning the trophy in 1999, while renewing a glorious acquaintance with their only rivals as the world's most glamorous club. Whoever wins the Premiership this season, Arsenal are not yet in contention for that title, nor are they remotely close to United's achievement of reaching the last eight in Europe for seven successive seasons. Frustratingly thin the margins may be, but hard-luck stories are not inscribed in the record books. That could usefully be the theme of Wenger's sermon to his players at lunchtime today.

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