Patrick Vieira said yesterday that Arsenal had to beat their own personal demons before they can win the Champions' League. The most formidable opponent standing in the way of European success, the Arsenal captain said, is themselves. "It is more a mental thing than anything else," Vieira said. "Because the way we perform is not too bad. I think we play a fantastic game but maybe we did not play our best in the big games."
Few will come bigger than tonight's opening encounter in Group B against the obdurate Italians of Internazionale - especially as Arsenal have, astonishingly, failed to win any of their last five home ties. Vieira said it was "a bit harsh" to call them "naïve", but then conceded: "Maybe we are too naïve because we want to play too much. Maybe when we score, we should sit back and wait for the other team but that is not the way we are. We like to go forward and score goals."
Haunting everyone at Highbury is last season's 1-1 draw against the 10 men of another Italian club - Roma - in which the then Premiership champions, including a quarter-fit Vieira, were given a master-class in how to pace a European match led by the Brazilian midfielder, Emerson. Even the thought of it makes the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, shudder, although he puts forward a more forthright case than his peculiarly downbeat captain (who went on to tip Juventus to prevail in the competition).
"I don't think it is a psychological problem," Wenger said ahead of his sixth Champions' League campaign, having only progressed as far as the quarter-finals on one occasion. "We played in difficult groups and against good teams," he said somewhat unconvincingly.
The belief persists that the biggest problem Arsenal face is their lack of variety. If they struggle, there is no Plan B. But equally important was Wenger's own assertion that his team has suffered from a lack of "defensive stability". "We were not strong enough," he said, before arguing that his inactivity in the transfer market could be a bonus. "Sometimes the fact that you don't buy players gives you the chance to experience things you would not do," he said. Such as playing Kolo Touré at centre-back? When did Wenger strike upon that (so far relatively successful) idea? "In pre-season," he said. "On a sleepless night." He will have to decide whether to be bold and persist with the young Ivory Coast player or recall the 36-year-old veteran Martin Keown. It may be a time for caution.
A bonus tonight will be the absence of the brooding but brilliant Christian Vieri - who has already had two outbursts this season aimed at his under-pressure coach, Hector Cuper - and the clever Alvaro Recoba. That means they will be led by two of three youngsters: Mohammed Kallon, Obafemi Martins or the Argentinian Julio Ricardo Cruz - a player admired by Wenger. The Italians are also just two matches into their season and, despite winning against Modena and Sienna, are playing poorly.
The Inter president, Massimo Moratti, thought hard about sacking Cuper but in the end decided to give him what his team were missing, wingers. Andy van der Meyde arrived from Ajax, Kily Gonzalez from Valencia and Luciano from Chievo. Arsenal expect a different Inter from last season, when they ground their way to second place in Serie A and to the last four of this competition. "We will expect them to play really high and put us under pressure," Vieira said.
Pressure is something Arsenal are already under. Wenger, knowing that the clock is ticking on his ageing side, added: "We are at a stage now where we have gathered experience over the years and it is for us to show that." A win would help banish some of those demons.
Arsenal (probable 4-4-2): Lehmann; Lauren, Campbell, Keown, Cole; Ljungberg, Gilberto, Vieira, Pires; Henry, Bergkamp.
Internazionale (probable 4-4-2): Toldo; Helveg, Materazzi, Cannavaro, Cordoba; Van der Meyde, Zanetti, Emre, Kily Gonzalez; Cruz, Martins.
Referee: M E Gonzalez (Sp).
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