By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are on the cusp of a Cup Final.
In a sense, beating Ipswich in the Carling Cup Semi-Final second leg on Tuesday night will take Arsène Wenger back to where it all began.
His last Wembley Final was back in 1998 when a tumbling Marc Overmars and a clinical Nicolas Anelka secured the latter half of the Club’s second ever ‘double’.
If he had never won another game as manager, Wenger would have always been an Arsenal legend after that. But, of course, since then the Frenchman has built and rebuilt several successful, historic teams.
Yes, he has taken some of them back to Wembley for a few Champions League adventures, the Charity Shield and an FA Cup Semi-Final. Meanwhile Cardiff played host to a couple of trophy lifts.
But a Cup Final at Wembley is special, whatever the brand. And you cannot help feel that winning this season’s Carling Cup is exactly the fillip required by Wenger’s new generation.
Tony Adams, who lifted that FA Cup at Wembley in 1998, told Arsenal TV Online recently that this side just had to “get over the line”, win a trophy and further success would follow. On the eve of the game, his former manager could only concur.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “I believe that if you look at the age of our team, what we have done is absolutely amazing. There is a lot more to come and I feel from game to game we get stronger. We learn from our history every time.”
Arsenal could do with recent history repeating itself on Tuesday. Last week, Wenger’s men outclassed Leeds in an FA Cup Third Round replay at Elland Road after only just salvaging a draw in the original game at Emirates Stadium.
Ipswich arrive with a fully-deserved 1-0 lead from the first leg at Portman Road a fortnight ago. Arsenal only really woke up after Tamas Priskin scored midway through the second half. In the Club’s busiest ever January, perhaps they played wrapped in the security blanket of this second leg but Wenger knows he needs a Leeds-like response against a side with nothing to lose.
“What I liked at Elland Road was that the team had learned from the first game,” he said. “That's why I believe this side has talent, intelligence and hunger. And those are very good ingredients to get over the line this time.
“In the first leg Ipswich were much more solid defensively than us. Don’t forget they had just lost 7-0 against Chelsea but three days later they were good at the back while we were not playing our fluent passing. We were not sharp or quick enough. We expect them to play the same way again but of course we want to be much better this time.
“We play many games so maybe, in the same way, we eased off a little bit in that first game against Leeds. Then we realised we were up against it when we went to Leeds. We had to come out with a top-class performance and we did. Credit to the players for that and I am confident the players will have the same response on Tuesday night.”
Wenger intends to treat this as a Premier League game. He’ll make four or five changes but all the stars should be in the squad.
Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas, Johan Djourou and Samir Nasri passed fitness tests on Monday after suffering minor bumps and bruises in the 3-0 win against Wigan. Sebastien Squillaci, Abou Diaby and perhaps Tomas Rosicky should be back at the weekend.
Ipswich are 19th in the Championship and staring a relegation fight straight in the face. They also ‘boast’ one draw and five defeats in their last six away games.
But you could have trotted out similar statistics in the first leg and yet they raised their game. Having dispensed with Roy Keane, Ian McParland was in the dug-out at Portman Road that night. It was his only game in charge as incoming manager Paul Jewell was sitting in the stands. He has since taken full charge.
“He is a very assured, intelligent man and I think he is a good choice for Ipswich,” remarked Wenger. “He's a manager who has done well everywhere he has worked.”
Despite the change, the 61-year-old believes Ipswich will stick to the same long-ball style that unsettled his side at Portman Road.
“I think their approach will be similar,” said Wenger. “They will protect their advantage by trying to get us on the break with a direct game.
“But we’ll respect them. If you look at my record I think I have been consistent in my career against teams of lower divisions because I respect them and I know that they can raise their game.
“If you are not prepared you have bad surprises. We are stronger defensively as a team and hopefully we can open them up as well.”
It could be a huge night at Emirates Stadium. Not just because it could herald Arsenal’s first cup final of any sort since 2007 but because a victory would inject some history into their ‘new’ home.
There have been many major matches at Emirates and many significant victories but, except for the Champions League Semi-Final of 2009, nothing could ever be decisive. And that night, two early goals from Manchester United made for an excruciating final hour for the home fans.
Victory on Tuesday will not be a success in itself but it will give Arsenal a chance to grab a little of that rare and precious commodity on February 27.
* This tie will be decided on Tuesday night. If the aggregate scores are level at 90 minutes, then extra time will be played. After 120 minutes, away goals will count double but, if the teams are still level, then the Finalist will be determined via a penalty shoot-out.Copyright 2017 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