Wenger resumes quest for Grail of greatness

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The Independent Football

Greatness is a status that has much exercised Arsène Wenger over the past few seasons and it registered again yesterday as he outlined Arsenal's Champions' League campaign which starts tonight.

Just how, indeed, do you define the achievements of a high-achieving team, especially one which plays such compelling football? "If we win the Champions' League," Wenger said, "then some people will say that we still won't be a great team until we have won it again."

Those "some people" will surely include Wenger himself. After all, as recently as last March, before playing Celta Vigo, he stated that his team would not rank alongside the Ajax of the Seventies or the Milan of the early Nineties until they had won the European Cup. And more than once.

But, as Wenger said, it is a question of "going step by step". And that starts tonight when Arsenal meet PSV Eindhoven, runners-up in the Dutch championship, for their first Group E encounter. It is with that incremental philosophy that Arsenal have constructed their record of 45 games unbeaten in the Premiership.

"If I had said that we would go so many games unbeaten, people would have laughed," Wenger stated. Nobody is laughing now. They simply shake their heads in admiration at the football Arsenal play.

Step by step is Wenger's philosophy, also, in claiming that Arsenal have improved each year they have entered the competition. "We have gone one step higher every season and we were close last year," he said. Last time round it was the quarter-finals, the furthest Arsenal have reached, but Wenger states unequivocally: "We have more confidence now and we have shown our consistency."

The difference, also, appears to be the emergence, after a tentative start, of Jose Antonio Reyes. Wenger again recounted the story of how the 21-year-old Spaniard had wanted to return home the day he arrived following his January move from Sevilla because of the snowy weather. "I told him it wasn't always like that. He caught the worst day of the winter," Wenger said.

Indeed, Reyes, with six goals already this season, is blossoming into a rare commodity. "The talent is there to be very influential," Wenger said when asked to compare him to Thierry Henry.

Wenger dismissed suggestions that the Champions' League was something of a Holy Grail, even if he also describes it as a "quest".

"It is presented like that, but if you approach games in the right way you will normally win what you deserve to win," Wenger said. He doesn't expect his players to "rush" the way they did at the start of their last campaign, which brought a demoralising defeat against Internazionale and a nervous qualification. Indeed, his main concern is the referee, Domenico Messina. The Italian was in charge of last week's explosive match between Wales and Northern Ireland when he dismissed three players. "You have to be cautious as he looked like he sends off players easily," Wenger said.

PSV are in transition, having allowed players such as Mateja Kezman and Arjen Robben to leave. However they have kept midfielder Mark van Bommel and added Philip Cocu. In Guus Hiddink they also have one of Europe's wilier coaches.

Nevertheless, Wenger, whose only new injury doubt is Fredrik Ljungberg, will not countenance a change of style. "When you have the ball, you must pass it well," he said. "When you don't have it, you must win it back. There is no magic formula. It's just having the right attitude, humility and togetherness. We just have to play our normal game and let other people judge how good we are."

Arsenal (probable) (4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Cygan, Touré, Cole; Pires, Vieira, Gilberto, Reyes; Bergkamp, Henry.

PSV Eindhoven (probable) (4-4-2): Zoetebier; Ooijer, Young-Pyo Lee, Bouma, Alex; Ji-Sung Park, van Bommel, Cocu, Beasley; Vennegoor of Hesselink, de Jong.

Referee: D Messina (It).