By Chris Harris
“I believe in them, yes.”
Those words, uttered by Arsène Wenger at his pre-match press conference, concluded the Frenchman’s latest impassioned defence of his squad.
Many of the journalists in the room did not share his optimism and some Arsenal fans might not either, especially after three consecutive goalless draws in the Premier League. But Wenger remains convinced that his players are going places - provided he keeps them together.
“We have beaten Man United and Chelsea and we didn’t lose against Liverpool,” pointed out Wenger. “We played with Walcott, Diaby, Fabregas, Nasri and Denilson against Man United, the oldest one is 21 years-old. So when they are all 23, they will comfortably beat all the other teams. Believe me.
“But we have to keep them together and that is basically the danger in the modern game. The players feel we have a good potential but they are like everybody and want to win today and now.”
That’s where the Champions League comes in. The ‘cup with the big ears’ is enough to satisfy the most needy of footballers and, with the Premier League title a distant hope, this is the most glamorous trophy within Arsenal’s reach this season.
To stay on course, Wenger’s side must find a way past Roma. Like Arsenal, the Giallorossi made an ignominious start to their season but have built some momentum with 15 wins in their last 21 matches. Unlike West Ham and Sunderland, the last two visitors to Emirates Stadium, Wenger expects Luciano Spalletti‘s team to marry typical Italian caution with a very real threat on the counter-attack.
“In the Champions League teams have a more positive attitude than the teams in the Premier League who have come to the Emirates recently, although that's not difficult I must say,” noted Wenger.
“Football becomes really interesting when both teams try to play and Roma have two playmakers. One is deep, Daniele de Rossi, and higher up the pitch is Francesco Totti. They have two runners; Mirko Vucinic, who makes very good runs, and the second who comes from deep is Simone Perotta. The rest are all good players.”
Wenger’s own attacking options are rather restricted, of course. Eduardo, Emmanuel Adebayor (both hamstring), Cesc Fabregas (knee), Theo Walcott (shoulder) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) are still on the road back from injury while Andrey Arshavin is ineligible and Mikael Silvestre has suffered a recurrence of his calf injury. On a brighter note, Abou Diaby has shrugged off a thigh injury and could reprise his role as a deep-lying striker in the Champions League.
Either way, Wenger insisted he will not hold back tonight - the Frenchman knows that a positive result against Roma could give Arsenal the fillip they need to turn their undoubted potential into tangible reward.
“We will play with two strikers,” Wenger confirmed. “I haven’t decided if we play 4-4-2 or not but we will play with two strikers. We go for it. It is as simple as that.
"For us it is a big game because we have a good opportunity to do well in the Champions League. After this tie we will have a few players coming back so the squad will be bigger. It is important because I feel the team is in a period where a big victory can give them the lift and confidence.
"The squad has been tested mentally since the start of the season. We have toughened up and have shown great mental strength since the start. We have gone through a difficult period but overall I feel that we have handled situations as a squad very well.
"There is a lot of quality coming out of this team, they have matured a lot mentally but they still lack a little spark to really take off. Now it is down to us to take the handbrake off and go into the last part of the season with complete belief.”
Not that Wenger is lacking in that department.Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 23 Feb 2009