By Richard Clarke
“I expect us to respond in a strong way because this team is very ambitious and wants to do very well,” said Arsène Wenger ahead of the visit of Schalke on Wednesday. “The players were very, very disappointed after we lost the game at Norwich. We have to put that behind us and I am sure they will show a strong response.
“Good results help to establish a good rhythm,” the manager went on. “The interruption [for internationals] didn’t help but everybody has to cope with that.
“I read Norwich worked on their shape for two weeks. We had two players for two weeks. But at the end of the day, part of being successful is being capable of coping with the kind of problems that you have in a big club.”
And, since before the turn of the Millennium, part of Arsenal’s ‘big club’ mentality has been about progressing through the group stage of the Champions League.
The manager’s no-nonsense response to the disappointment at Carrow Road on Saturday has been as frank and honest as it has been admirable. But he was keen to draw the thickest of lines underneath it on the eve of the German side’s visit. After all, a win would leave Arsenal five points clear in Group B with only nine still available. And, if that happens, a draw in Gelsenkirchen in two weeks would all but seal top spot.
But that is far too forward-looking.
As the Arsenal players trooped stern-faced out of the dressing room at Norwich over the weekend, the Schalke squad were celebrating a famous 2-1 win at their fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund.
And, but for at last-minute Montpellier equaliser in Germany three weeks ago, the leaders of Group B would be neck-and-neck.
Wenger, who has lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (hip) to injury at Norwich but can call on Laurent Koscielny, maintains full respect for the side that lies third in the Bundesliga and has only been beaten by Bayern Munich this season. And the leaders’ record is a stunning P8 W8 D0 L0 F26 A2. In their other nine League and European games this term, Schalke have scored at least twice.
“They are a team that tries to play good football and they try to build out from the back, like all the German teams,” said Wenger. “They have just had a very good result in Dortmund and they are solid with good organisation.
“They are a team with few superstars,” he went on, “but they have good players in every position.
“The central defenders and full backs are dangerous going forward. Up front of course they have Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, who we know well. They have Ibrahim Afellay and Julian Draxler too, if he plays. They are dangerous on counter-attacks and, for me, they are a very complete team.”
High praise indeed but then Arsenal’s European home record is worthy of equal, if not more, respect. Wenger’s men are unbeaten in their last 16 ties at Emirates Stadium going back to Manchester United’s victory in the semi-finals of 2008/09. They have not lost to foreign opposition since Inter’s 3-0 success at Highbury in September 2003 – an incredible 45 games ago.
“I think what changes in the Champions League is that teams don’t come to defend, they play their game,” said Wenger when asked for an explanation. “So it is a bit more even.
“If you look at the possession we have in the Champions League, it is not massive, not comparable to what we have in the Premier League. It is much more balanced. Maybe it gives us more chances to score.
“But as well you play against teams that are always well-organised and can play good, counter-attacking football. They are used to dominating games in their League and the players know you want a big performance from them.
“Still overall the most important thing is that we have the ball, we play our football, we concentrate on the quality of our game, express our talent and just enjoy playing.
“We have a good opportunity now. We play at home against Schalke and, since we won in Montpellier, our qualification has depended on how well we do at home.
“We have beaten Olympiacos and Montpellier, now it is down to us to beat Schalke - and if possible away of course.”
Certainly, Arsenal have done well enough in this season's Champions League to have their fate in their own hands. The Tuesday travails of Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona surely tell us that reputation and previous records count for little in this season’s tournament.
In situations such as this, a different generation of Arsenal managers would have dug in for the type of 1-0 win the home fans still sing songs about. Although a sizeable contributor to those “0s”, Steve Bould, will be on the bench while Wenger completes his touchline ban, it is still the Frenchman’s team and they will adhere to his attacking philosophy on Wednesday night.
That style has been called “death by a thousand passes” and, over the two games with Schalke, Arsenal may well reach four figures.
The accuracy, invention and bravery of those balls will almost certainly determine their success in Champions League Group B this season.
Arsenal: Oxlade-Chamberlain (hip), Fabianski (back), Walcott (lung), Rosicky (tendon), Gibbs (thigh), Diaby (thigh), Szczesny (ankle)
Schalke: Papadopoulos (flu)