By Richard Clarke in Montpellier
Arsenal’s Champions League adventures have always been inextricably linked with France.
Their first game in the competition was a scrappy 1-1 draw at Lens almost exactly 16 years ago. They have returned three times since and come away 1-0 winners on each occasion.
In fact, if you throw in UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup ties, Arsenal are unbeaten in eight games against Gallic opposition since Europe’s governing body re-organised.
But, and here is the rub, they have lost two finals in the French capital – both late, both heartbreaking.
Wenger was not in charge for the Cup Winners' Cup Final of 1995 but he was very much at the helm in 2006. Naturally, it was foremost in his mind ahead of the opening game of this season’s competition at Montpellier on Tuesday night.
“We have lost once in France,” he smiled, correcting the amateur statistician talking of that unbeaten record at his pre-match press conference. “It was in Paris against Barcelona and it is not a good memory for me.
“However on Tuesday we want to keep this tradition of not losing [to French sides]. We have played a couple of games in the UEFA Cup against the likes of Nantes and Lens too but not too many games in the Champions League when you think about it.
“Still we have always played against good teams over here and last season we were a little lucky in Marseille when we scored in the last minute.”
In many ways Montpellier are reminiscent of that opening game at Lens back on September 16, 1998. It was a new experience and Arsenal were never really comfortable against the surprise French champions in a electric atmosphere. They took the lead through Marc Overmars but were hauled back by a last-minute goal. On Tuesday, Wenger’s men take on a side whose title win was, in his words, “a miracle” and, he argues, may have suffered a horrible start to their defence precisely because of this Champions League opener.
Wenger certainly compounded their problems by taking Olivier Giroud, Ligue 1's top goalscorer last season, in the summer but the Arsenal manager is not underestimating his opposite number Rene Giraud and the importance of the occasion to Montpellier.
“Yes I know Rene very well and I have fought a few battles here,” said Wenger. “Girard is a smart coach.
“And Montpellier are a team who plays in a tough kind of Mediterranean style but they can also control a game pretty well.
“The atmosphere will be Mediterranean too - that means very excited and enthusiastic. The crowd will be massively behind them so we have to use all our experience and talent to deal with that.
“Apart from Giroud, they have kept all their players so I don’t think they are a weaker team. Maybe they were unlucky in the league games they played and also they may have had the Champions League in their heads. That plays a big role for the players.
“I think experienced clubs can focus on their next game and their next objective. But maybe they have focused a lot on this Champions League match.”
Wenger himself will have a slightly different focus on the game - one viewed from the stands. He starts a three-game touchline ban so, for the first half of Group B, Steve Bould will take over from the moment the squad arrives at the stadium to the moment they leave.
“We talk about all the possibilities before the game – if we defend or if we attack, if a player makes this run or that run – and go through all the solutions,” said the manager. “An element of the unexpected can happen, but Steve has experience. I will feel powerless but sometimes I have that feeling on the bench anyway!”
Bould’s stock is high at moment. And so it should be. But it is simplistic to suggest the introduction of a great former defender has instantly made the current defence great. For a start, Bould is not the only backroom change – Neil Banfield moved into the first-team coaching set-up at the same time. It is just that he does not wear a tracksuit on game day.
“No, we’ve not changed anything [in our coaching style],” said Wenger. “I build the training sessions and it will remain like that. I’ve been coaching for 30 years so I’m not going to change things because Steve Bould arrived in August. But he does a great job.
“And, at the end of the day, it’s important that we have a style of play and people are convinced of that style of play - the coaches and players.
“After that, everybody has his own personality and I have chosen Steve because I think he will add something to our team. He is well integrated into the Club. That's why I choose people who have worked with us before and are convinced by what we do.”
The Arsenal squad shows two changes from Saturday’s 6-1 stroll against Southampton. Fit-again Abou Diaby returns in place of Andrey Arshavin and Wojciech Szczesny injured his ankle in the warm-up at the weekend so James Shea comes in. Vito Mannone will take the gloves while Damien Martinez misses out because he has not had enough continual service at Arsenal to be named in either of the Champions League squad lists.
Wenger is well aware that in little over two weeks he has a brace of Champions League ties plus Manchester City away and Chelsea at home. The season may be just four games old but he is already managing his resources.
“We will make one or two changes but we will try to keep the stability of our team with seven or eight players around them,” he said. “We have no injury problems at the moment but we always rotate from game to game.”
The unknown is the involvement of Giroud. Wenger had his poker face on during his media work. There is an argument that the 25-year-old may flourish in a familiar environment but Gervinho looks a viable option on the basis of his two goals on Saturday.
However, countering that, Giroud has started both away games this season and made significant contributions in each – offensively and defensively. Yes, he did not score but talk of 'goal-droughts' and pressure is beyond silly given the well-known differences in the English game. Remember, the London shops were stocking for Christmas by the time Thierry Henry started hitting the net with any sort of regularity back in 1999. Now his likeness is cast in bronze outside Emirates Stadium.
“Forwards sometimes go through a rough period but maybe he just needs a goal to get out of it,” said Wenger.
“Also I think, for that position, it is a little bit different in England. The game is very different for two positions - forwards and goalkeepers. It is a real shock for them because there is a lot more contact.”
It all comes down to experience. Something Wenger, Bould nor anyone else can coach. This is Arsenal’s 15th successive season in the Champions League and, should they reach the knockout round, it will be their 13th successful passage through the group stage.
It is a leviathan record that few in Europe can match – and it starts by being professional in games such as this.
The experience of that long-ago night in Lens – and all the trips that followed, to France and elsewhere – can only help.
Montpellier: Utaka (thigh)
Arsenal: Szczesny (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Sagna (leg), Fabianski (back), Rosicky (tendon), Frimpong (knee)Copyright 2015 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