By Richard Clarke
You could argue that modern Champions League football is Premier League football in reverse.
Domestically, teams mostly shape their seasons at home and just grab what they can away. On the road managers often “come for a point” and, when they don’t get it, lament the demands of travelling into enemy territory.
In Europe it is different. In the build up to tonight’s Champions League Semi-Final first leg at Old Trafford, Arsène Wenger said the away-goals rule almost forced his side to be “audacious”. Meanwhile at his pre-match press conference, Sir Alex Ferguson seemed more concerned about how many Arsenal would score than than his own side.
“We need to win without losing a goal, put it that way," said the Scot. "I would be delighted to win the game 1-0.”
Traditionally that scoreline has been Arsenal’s domain and, of course, it would suit Wenger handsomely tonight.
However the Frenchman argues inhibited football is not in the DNA of either side yet he does take a certain confidence from a Manchester United defence that has conceded 11 goals in its last seven games.
“What I want is my team to play with belief, with certainty and with desire to score goals,” he said. “It’s never predictable whether you score goals or not but what is predictable is both teams have an offensive style and will try to score.
“I believe that they can concede goals and that is always good. It’s better to know that than they haven’t conceded goals for 10 games!
“But let’s not speculate on any weakness of Manchester United. Let’s focus on our strengths and on the way we want to play.”
On the morning of the match, Wenger was set to run the rule over Mikael Silvestre (back) and Kieran Gibbs (ankle). If the Englishman is out then the Frenchman could cover him at left back and Johan Djourou could slot in at centre back. If both fail to make it, expect Bacary Sagna to move to the left and Emmanuel Eboue to fill the hole on the right.
However you see it, William Gallas (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) are big misses defensively for Arsenal. Although Andrey Arshavin (ineligible) and Robin van Persie (groin) are out, Wenger does have most of his attacking options available. All the more reason to try to kill the tie in the first leg.
Arsenal have not conceded a Premier League or Champions League goal at Emirates Stadium since before Christmas therefore they must be confident than any kind of advantage could be protected.
But whatever happens going forward, Arsenal will have to dig deep defensively. Their 20-game unbeaten run in the Premier League smacks of a side with sufficient stomach for the battle. But it must be said that run was mostly built up against the middle and lower sections of the table. In the last couple of weeks Wenger’s men have come up against two other members of the so-called Big Four; coming away with a brave point at Liverpool and disappointing defeat against Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final.
Perhaps this is not a vintage year for Manchester United but, as League leaders and Champions League Semi-Finalists, they remain the team to beat in Europe and at home. However Wenger argues he side are now a “different animal”.
“This is a younger team but they are maybe more consistent and more difficult to beat,” he said.
“The team has matured a lot because I believe they are mentally strong and very determined,” he went on. “Maybe because we have gone through a bad start to the season and a difficult period, it helped a team that is very young to grow up. I think this team is a different animal to last year, mentally, especially.”
In the build-up to tonight’s game, much has been made of the particular significance this trophy has to Arsenal as a Club and their manager in particular. Both parties have never won it and, to an extent, are defined by that fact. Arsenal have dined at Europe’s top table for a decade, yet without a Champions League victory there is always the creeping insecurity of feeling that they 'just don’t quite belong'.
At his press conference even Wenger accepted that this is a gap on the Club’s CV.
“It is,” he said. “That is why we are here and that’s why we are very determined to wipe that out. I believe that if you look at the history of the Club, they have not been present so many times in the Champions League before I arrived.
“I believe since then we have been very close. We are there every year and let’s continue like that. I am confident that we will make it.”
And what about his personal ambitions?
“Well I don't know what I would feel if I didn't win the Champions League,” he said. “But I am an optimist. I believe I will win it, the sooner the better. That is why I am here with complete belief.
“But I am at a stage of my career that I am more focussed to do it for the players, the Club and the fans than for myself. I had the luck to stay at the same place for 13 years and I also know how much it means to the Club and the players. I am just focussed to give every bit of energy I have to the team.
“I want to do it for the Club, for the players and the fans more than for me. You cannot always win everything but my desire is to do that so I will always be frustrated. I want to achieve it for the Club because it has never been done and I want this group of players to do it for the first time.”
Don’t we all, Arsène. Don’t we all.
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