By Richard Clarke in Arnhem
“The biggest game of the season is the qualifier for the Champions League,” said Arsène Wenger shortly before flying to Holland on Tuesday. “You can miss a Premier League game and catch back up but if you miss this Champions League game......”
He did not finish the sentence.
It was as if he did not want to contemplate the ramifications.
Of course British football fans know them all to well. Rangers were dumped out of European competition entirely last week – a huge blow to both their football standing and their finances. Wenger does not see this tie that way but, at the same time, he is hardly underplaying its importance.
“It is not about the money, it is our sports target,” he declared. “I would not say that [our season is over of we lose] but our main targets are the Premier League and the Champions League. And the Champions League can only be a target if you are in it.”
It is downbeat stuff but let’s not confuse concern and concentration with pessimism.
Certainly Arsenal could have drawn easier opposition than a Twente side who beat Ajax in the Eredivisie play-offs last season and have brought off a considerable coup by appointing former England coach Steve McClaren.
And Wenger could have been handed a kinder run of absences. Philippe Senderos (hamstring), Kolo Toure (hip), Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Abou Diaby (thigh), Samir Nasri (knee/thigh), Eduardo (leg), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Amaury Bischoff (groin) and Alex Song (Olympics participation) are all missing.
However it would be massive shock for Arsenal to go out or even lose this first leg. The attack and defence are virtually at full strength, it is only the midfield that will be lacking first-team regulars tonight. As a result 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey is expected to make his full debut following his summer move from Cardiff.
“It’s a big day with a big meaning for us because the target – to be in the Champions League - is very high,” said Wenger. “You know that when you come to Holland you always get a good game and a tough game. No matter where you play.
“We know as well this side demands a lot of respect and concentration. They are a team who have knocked out Ajax in the qualifiers of the Champions League. We know they have the typical Dutch culture of playing football and keeping the ball very well. Therefore we need a good defensive concentration.”
Understandably much has been made of the absences, especially given the outside perception that the Arsenal squad is already a player or two light.
“Well,” said Wenger in response. “If you consider we have Song at the Olympics plus Fabregas, Rosicky, Toure, Senderos, Diaby, Nasri and Eduardo all injured then our squad is not as small as that.
“I have said many times we were short of one player and I hope to do something this week before the transfer deadline.”
Some of the injuries are very short term, for example Toure and Nasri are expected to be back to face West Brom in the Premier League curtain-raiser on Saturday. But, for tonight at least, Wenger will be replacing those casualties and summer departures with talented youngsters. He admits it is not ideal but at least it has been anticipated.
“We are used to preparing the players to replace those who leave the club,” said the Frenchman.
“I believe many players become big stars at our club. But usually they are replaced by players who will become big stars at our club.”
Given the importance of the game and predicament of the squad, some stellar performances would certainly come in handy this evening.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 13 Aug 2008