Pre-Match Report

Carling Cup: Arsenal v Birmingham - Preview

Wembley Stadium

By Richard Clarke

If Arsenal win the Carling Cup on Sunday, Arsène Wenger will leave Wembley with a satisfied smile on his face. But despite having ended that famous six-year spell without a trophy, developed a young vibrant side and silenced a few critics, the Frenchman’s demeanor may have changed by the time he gets home.

By then his thoughts will be on opening up the Leyton Orient defence rather than open-top buses and his winner’s medal may well have left his possession for good.

Make no mistake, the Birmingham game is massive for Wenger and his team. But the manager wants this to be the first of many prizes – hopefully this season – and the Carling Cup is only the springboard.

“To win this trophy would give us a lift,” said the Frenchman at his press conference on Friday.

“There is a weight on the team at the moment. We have to deliver trophies because we have not won any.

“I’m not the only one for whom that is important. There’s the players’ feelings too. They say: ‘Ok, we want to win a trophy to show you we can win one’. And I believe to win would give us a lift for the rest of the season.

“We have a good bond, a good confidence level and are highly determined to do well on all fronts. What will be vital for our success is that we focus well on the next game and give it the biggest importance. That’s the final game in the Carling Cup and will give everything to be successful.

“We are on a very strong run now. If you look at the start of the season, we are well above the predictions of the specialists.

“What is important is not what happened in the last six years but what we can do from now on.”

It is typical Wenger. The Frenchman has always shunned the sunshine of success. He’d prefer to watch a Belgian Second Division game on his giant TV than toast a triumph with backslappers. But his philosophy goes much deeper than mere modesty.

“I’m a futurist,” he said. “I’m not nostalgic. I don’t collect anything. I don’t know where my medals are. I’ve given some away, some must be in a cupboard somewhere. Frankly, I’m not a collector at all.

“This job turns you forward. When you go to bed at night, do you look back at the good moments you’ve had in your life, or do you look forward at what you want to do in the future? I’m more about what’s happening tomorrow.

“So on Monday morning we will come in and practice to win against Leyton Orient.”

On Thursday, Wenger had told TV Online that the hamstring injury picked up by Cesc Fabregas would cost him a place in the final. Media reports the following morning suggested the captain might make it so Wenger had to re-iterate the point at his pre-match press conference.

The Spaniard will be out for “one or two” games. Theo Walcott’s sprained ankle will sideline him for “two to three weeks”.

Robin van Persie, Laurent Koscielny and Abou Diaby are all available. The Dutchman will captain the side in the absence of Fabregas.

This is Arsenal’s seventh League Cup Final and they are going for their third victory. They reached Wembley the hard way by beating Tottenham, Newcastle and Wigan before coming from behind to see off Ipswich in the Semi-Final. For their part, Birmingham got past Rochdale, Brentford, MK Dons, Aston Villa and then West Ham.

Arsenal have beaten Alex McLeish’s side home and away this season but 6ft 7ins striker Nikola Zigic did put them ahead at Emirates Stadium back in October and in the January transfer window they brought in the powerful Obafemi Martins to partner him.

While Arsenal’s wait for silverware has been long, Birmingham have lifted just one trophy in their 136-year history – this one in 1963. However this season, you can argue that McLeish's men are a cup side. They have won eight out of nine knockout ties and, aside from Sunday, are in the FA Cup Quarter-Final. In the League they have won six out of 26 and are three points off the relegation places. However Wenger is fully expecting them to ease away from the dropzone before long.

“Birmingham are a team I respect a lot because they have always consistent behaviour in their motivational level,” said the Frenchman.

“They have stabilised the club in the Premier League and they are now in the Carling Cup Final. We will respect that.

“We know we will face a Birmingham team that is highly determined to do well. We expect them to be at their best and that means a big performance from our side will be requested.”

Wenger has always had an interesting relationship with the Carling Cup. His decision to play a very young side initially drew derision from the wider football world but it is now copied by many major sides. In turn, the Club supported that with cheaper seats that were not necessarily part of the season ticket package thus widening the fan base.

The youthful teams thrived and the home games sold out. So, in many ways, it will be highly fitting if this new generation team lift the Carling Cup as their first trophy. Most of the team will have made their debut in the competition while many fans watching at home and in the stadium will have been properly introduced to Arsenal via this event.

Yet, it remains a side-dish not a meaty main course for a greedy manager.

“The most important trophies are the Premier and the Champions League,” said Wenger. “After that you have the FA Cup and, after that, the Carling Cup.

“But for us it’s a trophy. How big the trophy is everyone will rate differently. We will just try to win it.

“I’m confident that we’ve been the most consistent team up to now,” he concluded, “because we’re still in everything.

“So it will convince the team they can deliver more.”

Sunday could close one six-year chapter in Arsenal’s history and open another much greater one.

Let the story unfold.

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