By Richard Clarke
Winning the Champions League may be an understandable obsession for Arsenal Football Club – but their manager has a different fascination.
Arsène Wenger came closest to bringing Europe’s top honour back to North London for the first time three years ago when his young side were stung by two late goals from Barcelona in Paris.
This evening they will book a return to the Final if they can overturn Manchester United’s 1-0 advantage in the Semi-Final second leg at Emirates Stadium.
It will be a major step towards filling an unwanted hole in Arsenal’s history and, at the same time, elevate Wenger’s reputation to one of the greatest managers of all-time.
But for the man himself, the primary motivation is not the trophy and certainly not his legacy. It is more about proving his long-term policy of signing, nurturing and relying on young talent to be correct. He admits he would probably give away a winner’s medal if he was to bring one back from Rome on May 27.
“It's the biggest club competition in the world and no manager will say he doesn't want to do it,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “But for me it's not an obsession.
“Of course once you are in the Semi-Final you want to win it. But frankly [a legacy] has never been my worry. My worry is to do the best I can with what I have. After that you have to judge me.
“I am a servant of the game and I want to do well for the football I love. My obsession is not whether people say I am great or not. We are all human beings and at the end of the day you try to do well - no more than that.”
It was a robust rebuttal of personal ambition. But when asked about his long-term ‘project’ of prudence in the transfer market and diligence bringing young players through the ranks, it was a different story. “Now that IS an obsession,” he exclaimed. “It’s quite simple. Take the list of players from the Champions League Semi-Finals and make the average age from each team. If you do that you will see that we are four to five years younger than any other team.
“I will feel very proud of this squad if they achieve it tomorrow because they have been through difficult periods and shown great mental strength.
“If I had said in November, we will be in the Semi-Finals of the Champions League and FA Cup, make 21 games unbeaten, you would have probably called me an ambulance!”
Staying with medical matters, Robin van Persie and Mikael Silvestre are back in tonight’s squad having recovered from groin injuries. Though, from what Wenger said pre-match, the French defender is still touch-and-go. But with William Gallas (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) out, every scrap of defensive experience will be needed.
Of course, Arsenal have not conceded a Champions League goal all season at Emirates Stadium. But you tend to think maintaining that will be the easier part of tonight’s equation. The harder part is to win by two clear goals; something Wenger’s men have not done against Manchester United in a competitive game since February 2003 – 17 games ago.
The holders also have stats on their side. They have not lost in their last 11 Champions League away trips and only conceded one goal in their last seven.
The discrepancy between the sides in the first leg have led the English bookmakers to make Manchester United odds-on favourites to reach the Final. Even the Arsenal players might have agreed with them on the bus back from Old Trafford last week. But, according to Wenger, the mood had changed by the time they came into training the next day.
“It was a disappointment,” said Wenger bluntly. “We lost the game. We were on a 20-game unbeaten run so I believe the players were down at the start but in a conscious, straight away. But what took over the next day was ‘we will do it at home’. “What team will give up a 1-0 lead from the opponent when they play at home in the Semi-Final of the Champions League?” he went on. “None in the world. Every single team would believe ‘we will do it at home’.
“We are 90 minutes away from where we want to go - the Final. These circumstances are a little bit special. It’s not like a League game because you have to win by two clear goals. If we go 1-0 up they will be under pressure as well. They know that if we score another one they are out.
“There’s no mission impossible for us. When we beat them at home in the League there were plenty of opportunities. I don’t think it would change my belief at all if they score first.”
It was interesting to see Wenger position his side in the build-up to this game. He has bullish confidence in them but at the same time suggests Manchester United are rightly favoured to go through.
“Yes, we are super-outsiders,” he explained to attendant journalists. “But the outsiders are judged by the outside. And you are on the outside! I believe in my team completely.
"We are all aware it is our team performance that will be important rather than the responsibility on any individual.
“I look to the whole team to perform. Do you know why? Because we were a penalty down in Rome but, with the young team, still made it through. After that I’m convinced they can hold their nerve in this game.”
If only it were down to just that.
In reality, Arsenal must find the perfect blend tonight. Holding their nerve, marshalling their defence, winning the midfield battle, keeping Manchester United occupied at the back and scoring at least a couple of goals.
It is a huge ask but then winning the Champions League always is.
In 2006, Arsenal’s run was counter-intuitive. A second-string defence kept 10 clean sheets in a row to reach the Final and then, having had Jens Lehmann sent off, they led highly-fancied Barcelona for over an hour at the Stade de France.
You could argue the odds against those things happening were greater than those associated with a two-goal win this evening.
But it is judgement night for Arsenal and they have it all to do.
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