By Richard Clarke
It is exam time for Arsène Wenger’s team of students.
They face a Spanish test tonight at Emirates Stadium then it is English on Saturday, with a bit of history thrown in, as they take on Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley.
These games will shape Arsenal’s season and tell us much about the potential of this group of players. Everyone has marvelled at the footballing prodigies that have dropped off the Emirates Stadium production line in the last few years but surely, in the end, their success can only be truly measured in silverware – and Arsenal need a trophy after four barren years.
The manager believes the visit of Villarreal in the Champions League Quarter-Final second leg will be part of the process.
“For me the most important thing is that this team continues to develop and you show that in big games like this one,” he said.
“I believe that we will. But people don't realise how difficult that job is - every three days to turn up and be performing.
“It is really an exam every three days and until now we have done that very well and have been consistent. That is what I always respect most in this job.
“We have suffered a lot this season,” he went on. “But we have shown strong responses because we have grown from game to game. I have never seen any sign of ‘OK, we’re giving up’.
“There has always been a strong unit in there in training, a high focus. I want them to be rewarded and therefore we want to perform.”
The ball is firmly in Villarreal’s court this evening. That 1-1 draw in Spain last week leaves them having to do what only Karl Duguid of Plymouth and Nick Barmby of Hull have done in 12 games since Christmas – score at Emirates Stadium – to have any hope of going through.
Although Arsenal have not conceded a home goal in their five Champions League games this season, injuries collected at El Madrigal last week leave them stretched at the back.
Manuel Almunia (ankle), William Gallas (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) all picked up problems in Spain while Johan Djourou (knee) suffered a knock at Wigan on Saturday.
It leaves Wenger fielding Lukasz Fabianski, 23, in goal with Bacary Sagna, Kolo Toure, Mikael Silvestre - without a start since January 3 - and 19-year-old Kieran Gibbs as the back four.
Further forward there are fewer problems. Robin van Persie (groin) faced a fitness test on the morning of the game but Abou Diaby (thigh) will return, albeit it on the bench.
Villarreal suffered a major blow before the first leg when the highly-rated Santi Cazorla broke his leg. This weekend they lost Marcos Senna, their midfield powerhouse, with a hamstring problem.
The Spaniard scored from distance for the Yellow Submarine last Tuesday as the home side swarmed all over Arsenal. The second half was quite the reverse but Wenger expects a more even contest tonight.
“It is a Quarter-Final of the Champions League and so it will be a fierce contest - physically, commitment, quality-wise,” said the Frenchman.
“I believe it will be a quality game because the two teams have technical quality. That came out in the first game.
“And I think their approach will be the same as they have in the first leg. They will play with the advantage of the first result, meaning they are in a position where they have to score. It should be an open game because we are in a position where we want to score, they are in a position where they have to score. So it will be an interesting game.”
It did not turn out that way last time. In 2006, Arsenal held a slender advantage from the Quarter-Final first leg at Highbury then somehow managed to defend it at Villarreal. That was a tense, ugly 0-0 that will only be remembered for Jens Lehmann’s last-minute penalty save and the emotion of making the Champions League Final for the first time.
Wenger would happily take the same result tonight however the sort of performance is hardly in his planning.
“Yes that would do, as we want to qualify,” said the 59-year-old. “But we do not go in with that intention.
“However the unpredictability of the game is that you can play 1000 years football and nobody can say what will happen. It can be a fantastic open game, or a boring 0-0 even if we don't go into that game with that idea.
“However I believe we want to go into the game with a positive attitude because we just want to win it. It is very dangerous otherwise.”
Villarreal’s Knockout Round tie just goes to prove that. Panathinaikos also took a 1-1 draw back to Greece for the second leg but set out their team to preserve their advantage and were beaten 2-1.
“They played a 0-0 and in the end were caught,” said Wenger. “If you start like you do not want to play, then you do have to play it is difficult to get into that mode to switch on. It does not work like that.
“We have had 0-0s at home in the second leg. It happened to us against Real Madrid [at Highbury in 2006]. We won 1-0 away and we drew 0-0 at home, but we did not play that night and it was a very competitive game. Of course after 80mins if it is 0-0, you can say what you want to your players, they will stay at the back!
“At Villarreal in the next round it was even worse. We won 1-0 at home and at half-time in the second leg I encouraged the team to play and it was like they said: 'No chance!'”
Wenger was grinning broadly as he recalled a rare moment of Arsenal playing ‘anti-football’.
His mood late tonight will be determined by the result but chastened by the type of performance his side puts in.
The manager, of course, will accept another straight forward C-grade pass in this evening’s examination. After all it would secure only Arsenal’s second ever Champions League Semi-Final.
But Wenger being Wenger he’ll urge his side to look for merit marks even though the pressure is on.
Either way, it is going to be tense.Copyright 2016 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