By Richard Clarke
“We have to give absolutely everything,” stressed Arsène Wenger at the end of his press conference on Tuesday. “Tomorrow is a more important game than Saturday’s for the Club by far.”
“Why do you say that?” he was asked. A fair question given that Arsenal are in control of their Champions League Play-Off tie with Celtic but face a daunting trip to Old Trafford this weekend.
“Because tomorrow you cannot catch back,” the Frenchman replied immediately. “On Saturday, even if we drop points at Man United, we can always get them back. You have 35 games still to go. If you miss your game tomorrow you have zero, so it is a massive game for us.”
It was as loud an alarm bell as the manager could ring when his side are going into the home leg of a crucial tie with the plump cushion of a 2-0 lead.
Tonight at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal are hoping to reach the Champions League Group Stage for the 12th consecutive season. It is only the third year in which they have had to qualify and, after that welcome win at Celtic Park, the media perception is that Wenger’s men will have another relatively stressless passage against the Glasgow side.
The Frenchman himself is not so sure.
“They gave us a physically hard game at Celtic Park and did not drop,” said Wenger. “That warned us we will need 90 top-class physical minutes.
“Also they will have to come out and have a go at us. They will have no choice. But we will be faithful to our tactical approach and will try to put them under pressure, play very high up and try to win the game.
“Yes, they did very well [in the second leg at Moscow in the last round] and that makes us even more on alert.
“But for the success of our season, it is vital to be strong at the Emirates. Any time you show any weakness at home, it can have big consequences for the rest of the season.”
Of course, that last clause is written right through this tie. The financial importance of the game is difficult to calculate with accuracy but it is surely well into eight figures. However that is NOT the main focus for Wenger.
“It’s a vital tie,” said the 59-year-old. “Not financially but because we want to show we are the best.
“Yes it would be good financially but we have always managed the Club financially very well. So it is important but it is not the most important thing.
“In football you want to be with the best and compete with the best. It’s not the financial blow that matters, it’s the fact we want to be in the Champions League. That is why tomorrow is a much bigger game than Saturday.”
Arsenal’s treatment room is over-stocked considering we are still in August. Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) is out but just might make Saturday’s match at Old Trafford. Ditto Tomas Rosicky (hamstring).
“It’s really 50:50 for Cesc for Man United,” said Wenger. “Maybe 60 not to play and 40 to play.”
Theo Walcott (back), Samir Nasri (fibula), Johan Djourou (knee) and Lukasz Fabianski (knee) are all longer-term absentees.
Like last year, injuries have left Wenger relying on the emerging youngsters in vital games. The difference is they are now older, stronger and more experienced than they were.
“I feel we have improved from within,” confirmed the manager. “I have gone for a policy which is a little bit different but look at the players who are not even in the squad at the moment. For this game we will not have Rosicky, Walcott, Djourou, Senderos, Gibbs, Nasri, Vela and Fabregas in the squad but we still have 18 players. So people are a little bit under-estimating the size of our squad.
“For me that is because we have young players. Someone like Aaron Ramsey, for example, is a different animal this year to last year. Back then he was a little bit a youth team player, now he is already a senior player, but next year he will be a different animal again. And that means we gain players in our squad because they just mature.”
Maturity is just one of the qualities Arsenal need tonight and, indeed, throughout the European adventure. Patience, diligence and professionalism will be important as well.
Champions League qualification cannot be overestimated. That’s why, even with that two-goal advantage, Wenger started his press conference by saying: “It is not job done, it is job to do.”
His words at the end of his media briefing suggested his side will hold nothing back until their night’s work is complete.Copyright 2014 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 25 Aug 2009