By Richard Clarke
The Premier League fixture computer clearly has a sense of history.
Arsène Wenger started his tenure as Arsenal manager with a game against Blackburn and, just days after completing a record-breaking 13 years in the job, he will face the Lancashire side once again on Sunday.
A lot has changed at Arsenal since 1996. Wenger has put trophies into the cabinet, style into the football and dozens of wonderful moments into the memories of supporters. The Club are now firmly ensconced in Europe’s elite and inhabit a stadium utterly in keeping with their elevated status.
Wenger did not put himself or his Club where they are today by looking backwards. But his pre-match press conference was dominated by reflection, including that trip to Ewood Park on October 12 1996.
“It was quite funny because it was my first experience in England,” said the manager. “We started well at Blackburn that day and now Sunday is a good opportunity to continue our good run and come back in the League.
“We have played away four times at difficult places and are in a strong position, so let's take advantage of that. For me that is all much more important than history.”
However, on this occasion, Wenger would not get away without further retrospection.
Arsenal won 2-0 on that day 13 years ago with Ian Wright netting both goals. It was an English based XI, far different from the all-foreign side that dispatched Olympiacos 2-0 on Tuesday.
“It is difficult to compare the side then and the one now,” he admitted when asked to contrast his first Arsenal team and his last one. “You can never compare really.
“For sure, it was an outstanding team, if you look at the quality of the players, but today we are different. I believe that team was typically made with an English backbone of players. Now we have more of an international team. That is the evolution which football has done in the last ten years.”
Ironically, Arsenal’s most high-profile Englishman, Theo Walcott, could play his first competitive action on Sunday. Until now a back injury has restricted him to 45 minutes of pre-season action.
Eduardo is out after picking up a recurrence of a thigh injury against Olympiacos. Manuel Almunia is back in training but is not ready to return so Vito Mannone will stay in goal. Nicklas Bendtner has recovered from the effects of a car crash last weekend.
In some respects, Blackburn’s Premier League record is the exact opposite of Arsenal. Sam Allardyce’s outfit have played four of their six games at home and lost both their away trips. Wenger’s team have had four of their six games on the road and have won both home fixtures.
In addition, a run of five straight wins, the last four with clean-sheets, is a positive response to the defeats in Manchester.
“It is going very well,” said Wenger. “Our overall performance in the games has been quite good, very promising.
“Even when we had a little disappointment in those two games, the quality of the performance was still there. Since then we have transformed that disappointment into more desire and come back every time.
“Do not forget we lost at Man City, and straight after that we were 2-0 down at Standard Liege but came back to win. That is why I believe the spirit is there and the quality is there. We know it is a very big and important season for us but I am confident we will do well.”
A relentlessly positive, forward-thinking approach is what sets apart the Arsène Wengers of this world to the rest of us mere mortals.
Three League titles, four FA Cups, fabulous football and the gratitude of every Arsenal fan will never sate his appetite.
“I haven’t exceeded my expectations in my time here,” he said candidly, “because I always expect much more.
“My expectation is to win every single football game I manage and I didn’t do that so I can never exceed my expectations. There are still more targets to achieve.
“I believe we have consistently managed to be at the top level, within our resources and while improving our structures. The Club is on a new platform to reach many more targets.
“Today I believe our structures – a new stadium, a new training ground, a healthy financial situation, a very young team playing at the top – means we have all the basics to be successful.
“But of course we want to win trophies because we have worked very hard with this team to be where we are.
“It is down now to us to win the Premier League, the Champions League – those are our targets.”
While much has changed since 1996, somethings clearly are exactly the same.
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