By Richard Clarke
This is a game of what might have been.
Although the two Champions League losers of the week still have something to play for this season, they will go in to Sunday’s square-off at Emirates Stadium licking considerable wounds.
Arsenal were beaten early by Manchester United on Tuesday while Chelsea had the latest of shocks against Barcelona on Wednesday.
Different ties, different reaction, same end result. And, ahead of their meeting this weekend, Arsène Wenger was definitive about who was still suffering the most.
“Chelsea,” he claimed firmly at Friday’s press conference. “Because they were qualified and we were never, over the 180 minutes, in a position where we were qualified – not for one second.
“We were always out of the competition and Chelsea were qualified. You couldn’t see how Barcelona could come back, they had zero shots on target. They were never a real threat.
“So yes, we will try to capitalise on that. For me Sunday will be down to the team who deals best with the disappointment, who wants it more and who has more strength of character.”
Arsenal need to win, probably by a couple of goals, to really re-ignite the race for third place. With three games left in the Premier League season, Chelsea are six points ahead and have a goal difference far superior to Wenger’s side.
Even if north triumphs over west in this London derby, Arsenal still have to play Manchester United, yet again, next week. Therefore this is not so much a play-off for third place but the opening rubber of a two-legged tie – and Arsenal have had recent experience of those.
But, then again, hardly a positive one.
Wenger argues that Chelsea do not possess the copyright on Champions League anger at the moment. It is just the Stamford Bridge side saw their frustration distilled into injury time on Wednesday while Arsenal’s may have been more disparate. That fact may help their mental recuperation and, by Friday, their manager was already trying to look at the positives of Arsenal’s European run.
“We are angry as well don’t worry,” said Wenger. “But I believe that you must give your players some credit because when you get to the final four in the Champions League it is important to keep the self esteem high. They have shown many qualities to get there.
“For me it’s not hard to try to re-motivate the players but what is hard is to get the belief, desire and a bit of joy back in the squad. It’s very hard but this team have no attitude problems – their attitude in training is spot on. They are hugely disappointed but they always practice focused and well.
“I know we live in a world where when you lose a game everybody gets hammered but to get where we were you need some quality.”
Thankfully, Arsenal picked up no new injuries from Tuesday night. However Andrey Arshavin (flu) is a doubt having missed training on Thursday and Friday.
Following that European exit, Wenger decided to end Gael Clichy’s season. The defender has been struggling with a back problem for more than a month and, with no trophy left to win, the manager did not want to gamble on making the injury worse.
That said, Wenger sees third place as an achievement. And, given he is now looking to next season, it is all the more important because it will mean Arsenal avoid a potentially troubling Champions League qualifier in August.
However that seems a long way away at the moment. Arsenal’s immediate job is to try and see out their season with some style. Third place would be handy but, given the gap, it can hardly been expected.
The medium-term aim must be to rebuild and recover for the next campaign. In the meantime, the manager accepts he is open to question given it has been four seasons without a trophy.
“I didn’t ask the fans to be patient,” said Wenger. “I do as well as I can with my resources. I can accept if people say it's not good enough, I can understand that completely.
“I just give my best to take the maximum out of the team and to do as well as I can for the Club. But you have to accept as well, what we have done. We were in the last four in Europe and have not lost a League game since November.
“We have lost against a team who's better than us. Nothing to be ashamed of, they are the best team in the world at the moment. OK, if it's not good enough, it's not good enough, we can accept that.
“But I feel we can go further because we have a young team. This is not a team who is over the hill, it is a team who are at the start of the hill.”
And, having taken a mighty tumble on Tuesday, the trek back to the summit starts again this weekend.
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