Wenger sets Arsenal the test of ambition

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The Independent Football

"The hardest thing is to arrive and to leave at the right time. It's like a love affair - one partner always has less desire to leave than the other." Arsène Wenger, 22 March 2003

And, of course, the most famous love affairs are conducted in Paris.

As Arsène Wenger strode into the sumptuous reception of the Plaza Athenée Hotel, amid the boutiques and parfumeries of the Avenue Montaigne, it is unlikely that he will have remarked onits Art Deco interiors (a style famed in Highbury's marble halls). The Arsenal manager had business on his mind. Business that could lead to his departure from north London.

A car had taken him the 13 miles from Orly airport, where he had touched down after visiting the 18-year-old Swiss centre-back Philippe Senderos, who is set to feature in the Arsenal first team next season. At the hotel, Wenger was with officials from the most glamorous club in football - Real Madrid.

Although the Spanish covet several of his players, it was the manager who, again, was their main interest. This was not the first time that Wenger had met Florentino Perez, the Real president, or Jorge Valdano, the director of football. Also present, it is under-stood, was an agent, Marc Roger - a man known to Wenger but whose dealings with Arsenal had so annoyed the club's vice-chairman, David Dein that he had banned him from the training ground at London Colney.

An offer was discussed, although not made formal - £3m a year for two years, with an option to extend the contract by 12 months. More than he currently earns, and parity with Sir Alex Ferguson. Wenger was given until 10 June, after he returns from holiday and before an Arsenal board meeting, to decide. He will not accept. For now.

This time next year, however, and it could be different. Arsenal are going into one of the most critical periods in their history and Wenger, understandably, wants to see how it develops. He wants to test their ambition.

Uppermost in his mind is the new stadium at Ashburton Grove. Wenger, who has involved himself directly in planning the state-of-the-art complex, is bitterly disappointed at the delays and spiralling costs. The project is already a year behind schedule and £100m over budget. That situation will only worsen as Arsenal struggle to finance what has become one of the country's biggest regeneration schemes.

The club, of course, are also in debt. Figures due out soon will show a deficit of around £60m. The effect on the playing staff cannot be under-estimated, although Wenger is prepared to accept reduced resources, for now, if the stadium is built. "It is vital to get a new stadium. If the club want to become one of the biggest in the world, they need one," he says.

At present, nothing is happening. Work has stopped while a wrangle continues over parcels of land, and Arsenal admit they still have not persuaded the banks to lend the £317m they require.

Wenger has two years left on his contract and, as has been frequently and accurately stated, he has never broken one. Not when he was manager of Monaco, nor when Arsenal came calling while he was in Japan. However, it must also be said that he has a clause in his Highbury deal allowing him to consider other offers at the end of each season, and he informed Arsenal about Real's interest.

Associates of Wenger are clear in the belief that he will stay until 2005. Many, though, are unsure he will remain after that. "What is happening with Real Madrid could well be a bit of lobbying on his part," says one. "I think it's a signal he is sending to Arsenal - 'Yes, I have been approached' and 'No, I'm not going'. But, come 2005, it will all depend on Ashburton Grove. It could be the excuse he uses to go." Another adds: "Arsène will not be upset that it has become public about Real."

Of even greater concern for Arsenal is the fact that many players clearly feel more loyal to Wenger than the club. Thierry Henry, for example, calls Wenger "a spiritual father", and recently extended his contract to 2007.

Meanwhile Robert Pires, another long-term target for Real Madrid, is in the final stages of negotiating a new deal at Highbury. He could sign as early as next week, with only the image rights to be resolved. Worryingly, however, doubts remain over whether Patrick Vieira - who, like Pires, has one year left on his deal - truly wants to stay. Like his fellow Frenchmen, he has questioned the ambition of the club, but is thought to be more sceptical. Wenger is the key - though he would say that Ashburton Grove is.

For Real Madrid, Wenger is clearly their first choice if they change managers. "He always has been. Madrid see him as their kind of manager," says one source. The likelihood is, however, that Vicente Del Bosque, who has won two Champions' League titles, will sign the 12-month deal he has been offered. Del Bosque, popular among the players but still under pressure, has rejected the deal for now but is expected eventually to agree.

That may suit Real Madrid and Wenger - for now. But for the Frenchman, who joined Arsenal in 1996 and has enjoyed astonishing success, his sense of unease is no seven-year itch.