Arsene Wenger said yesterday that he will extend his contract at Arsenal after the club announced they had finally secured the £260m they need to borrow for their new stadium at Ashburton Grove.
"I'm prepared to be committed to the club at least until we go into the new stadium," Wenger said ahead of tonight's Champions' League tie against Celta Vigo here. "But I don't think my contractual situation is a worry because I'm at least under contract until 2005."
With the £357m project due to be completed by the 2006-07 season, Wenger will be expected to sign at least a two-year extension to take his tenure at Arsenal to 12 years. "For the rest of my career?" Wenger replied when asked if it would be his last club. "I don't know because I don't know how long [that will be]."
It was clear that Wenger, a passionate advocate of the need for Arsenal to move from Highbury to a larger 60,000-seat stadium, feels that he has a duty to stick around. "I think I have pushed the board into the situation," he said. "So for me to run away would not be very fair. Of course I feel responsible. It's a gamble but it shows that the club are willing to go for it."
Keith Edelman, Arsenal's managing director, said: "I think that Arsène is very committed to the club. When he renewed his contract last time, it was not an issue of whether he was going to renew. It was the financial situation." By which he meant the uncertainty over whether Ashburton Grove would go ahead.
Wenger indicated that he feels he has managed through "lucky findings, lucky buys" to enable Arsenal to punch above their weight. The capacity at Highbury is, after all, 30,000 below that at Old Trafford and revenues suffer. Imagine what "natural potential" could be fulfilled, Wenger said ominously, in a bigger ground.
Edelman said of the manager's new contract: "It's something that we have not yet completed but I'm relaxed about it." Arsenal were also sanguine about an approach by Barcelona for Thierry Henry, which both clubs revealed was quickly - and unceremoniously - rebuffed even if the Spaniards admitted to feeling some indignation.
Arsenal were in a curiously relaxed mood as they attempt to reach the last eight of this competition for only the second time in six years. The confidence was undoubtedly fuelled by their astonishing form, making them currently the most formidable team in Europe, and, of course, the announcement about Ashburton Grove. But there was also a realisation that Europe is no longer as daunting as it was and they are determined to rectify a terrible record in Spain, where they have lost five and drawn one of their last six games.
"It's an opportunity to show we have improved," Wenger said. "I'm sure even the players thought they had an 80 per cent chance of going out," he added in reference to Arsenal's appalling start to the Champions' League in the autumn. "I would not say we'll win it [the competition] but we have shown the qualities needed in Europe."
Most eyes will be on Jose Antonio Reyes, the £17m signing from Sevilla, who is due to start alongside Henry. "It's a game for which he does not have to adapt," Wenger said. "For him, psychologically, it will be a bit different and special." Ashley Cole and Gilberto Silva will be missing but Patrick Vieira has passed a fitness test on his damaged knee.
Celta are one of the weakest teams in the last 16, and are having a poor season in La Liga. Their new coach, Raddy Antic, who has been linked with the Tottenham job, stopped a flood of goals and admitted that performing in the Champions' League was the reason he accepted a deal until the end of the season. Antic is vastly experienced - the only man to have coached Spain's top three clubs - and has been likened to Wenger by Spurs' caretaker manager, David Pleat.
Antic has undoubtedly galvanised the players, including the former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic - like Antic a Serb - and the Brazilian Silvinho, once of Arsenal. For him, it is not likely to be a happy reunion. This Arsenal side should have too much.
Celta Vigo (probable, 4-3-2-1): Cavallero; Velasco, Sergio, Berizzo, Silvinho; Angel, Luccin, Vagner; Edu, Mostovoi; Milosevic.
Arsenal (probable, 4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Touré, Campbell, Clichy; Ljungberg, Edu, Vieira, Pires; Reyes, Henry.
Referee: A Frisk (Sweden).
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