The FA Cup third round: one weekend of optimism and nostalgia in the midst of the long, dark Premiership winter? Not at Arsenal, where Arsène Wenger launched a scathing attack yesterday on the culture of English football that permitted his team to be "punched and kicked" by Sheffield United last week and then branded "babies" for failing to stand up to the onslaught.
Wenger's Arsenal face Liverpool today in the third round's marquee tie and pity poor Steve Bennett, the referee at Anfield this afternoon. Wenger is currently the subject of an FA charge after confronting Bennett and his assistants at half-time during the match with Portsmouth last month. Wenger objected to a decision shortly before the interval and was sent to the stands by Bennett for his reaction. It is at this time of the year that managers like to take a sentimental draught of "that old cup magic" but a week on from Bramall Lane and Wenger's outlook was bleak, his feelings still raw.
It has not proved any consolation that Chris Morgan, the Sheffield United captain, has since been given a three-match ban for punching Robin van Persie in the stomach during the game, an incident missed by the referee Lee Mason at the time. Surprisingly Wenger said he had no quarrel with Neil Warnock, just disgust at the values that allowed his team to be unfairly "destroyed" by the opposition.
"I accept we have to be kicked because we have a young team," he said. "But to get out there and be kicked and punched and then, in the end, you are still expected to say, 'Sorry we were not strong enough' - that's difficult to take. I don't feel it is right to punch people in the stomach and say afterwards, 'They are cry-babies.' Because that it is not the way I see the game. And I feel if that is the way we go, that does not benefit English football. If you go to the World Cup you cannot say you will behave like that because it gets you nowhere. I have to take it and shut up because we lost the game and I am [perceived] as a bad loser. But never when we win 5-0, when we lose 5-0, would you get me to say it [physical intimidation] is right. You cannot say on one hand you want a player to give you pleasure with good football, and then on the other accept he is destroyed and say 'well done' to the opponent. That cannot work."
Wenger's passionate defence of the spirit of the game might not sit easy with those who witnessed Martin Keown's assault on Ruud van Nistelrooy at full-time at Old Trafford in September 2003 - another Steve Bennett game. But Wenger has certainly succeeded in increasing the pressure on the referee to protect his players today.
The Arsenal manager claimed yesterday that he never swore at Bennett as he left the field at the Emirates Stadium and claimed that he has been singled out. "I have been here for 10 years and I spoke to the referee one time and got sent off," he said. He plans to appeal the decision and had put together footage of players and managers swearing at referees - without punishment - to aid his defence. He would not confirm who was on his video nasty though Wayne Rooney is expected to be prominent.
It was a measure of Wenger's anger that this Frenchman, who has refined his grasp of his adopted country's language to such a high level in his years at Arsenal, was prepared to resort to some choice old English to make his point.
"There are plenty of managers who say to the referee 'fuck off' and plenty of players who say 'fuck off' to the referee. And very famous English players."
At Anfield today it will be a restaging of the 2001 FA Cup final, a match dramatically seized by Liverpool through Michael Owen's two late goals at Cardiff. Wenger is without Emmanuel Adebayor, Freddie Ljungberg and the suspended Cesc Fabregas, as well as his long-term absentees although he said that he would field a strong team despite suspicions that the FA Cup does not rank high among his priorities this season.
In Rafael Benitez's first season at Liverpool, the foul weather at Burnley, a comical own goal by Djimi Traoré and the manager's perceived indifference to the competition conspired for an embarrassing third-round defeat. He atoned for it five months later by winning the European Cup and this year his team are the FA Cup holders. Neither he nor Wenger can afford to be flippant this time with their sides so far off the pace in the Premiership.
Even Benitez conceded that Wenger's team would be more likely to favour a draw against his side than another trip to face one of the Premiership's more prosaic sides. "I think Arsenal would prefer to play a team like Liverpool than Sheffield United because they know it is going to be a more open game and they will have more opportunity to show their quality," he said.
When they beat Arsenal in the 2001 final, Steven Gerrard later admitted Liverpool had been "smashed" at the Millennium Stadium by Arsenal. This time, it will be Benitez's team who look the more forbidding of the two. "They like to play nice football," he said, "and that can be good for the supporters at Anfield but not so much the managers because we don't want to see an end-to-end game with a lot of opportunities for both teams, we want to see our teams control the game and win."
Cup history: How Wenger has fared against Liverpool
* FINAL, 2001 The Gunners were rated as slight favourites to win the first FA Cup final to be held at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and went ahead through Freddie Ljungberg with 18 minutes left. Liverpool, dull and unadventurous until that point, woke themselves up and two late goals by Michael Owen sealed a 2-1 win.
* FOURTH ROUND, 2001-2002 Arsenal gained revenge in this stormy match. Jamie Carragher was sent off for throwing a coin back into the crowd and hitting a fan, while Martin Keown and Dennis Bergkamp - the latter headed the only goal of the game - were also dismissed, for fouls.Reuse content