By Richard Clarke
“I believe when you go to places like this, you need to tell your players that it will be as difficult as a Premier League game,” said Arsène Wenger. “And, for me, and it will be.
“Therefore you want to prepare yourself. If you don't do your mental work before the game, you have no chance and that is where our job lies.”
The Arsenal manager had just been reminded of his last trip to Yorkshire in the quarter-final of the Capital One Cup. It was at Doncaster Rovers four days before Christmas seven years ago and his team were very fortunate to escape a shock.
The home side led in normal time and then extra-time before Gilberto fired home an equaliser deep into the 120th minute. Manuel Almunia did the rest in the penalty shoot-out.
The venue on Tuesday is Bradford City - a side who started the Millennium in the top flight but have since slipped to the fourth tier of English football.
On paper, the draw has opened up for Arsenal in this competition. Of the eight quarter-finals, only Chelsea are above them in the football ladder and Rafa Benitez’s side face a tasty trip to Yorkshire themselves next week with Leeds United hoping that the intervening trip to Japan will be still heavy in their legs.
Wenger’s men are only still involved thanks to the best comeback in their history at Reading last time out. They were 4-0 down in half-an-hour but managed to equalise with the last kick of normal time then ran out 7-5 winners in extra time.
Finally, once and for all, it laid to rest the lie that, just because he plays a different team in this competition, the Frenchman cares little about it.
“We went through all kind of emotions in that game,” said Wenger. “When it is 4-1 at half-time, you think it will be difficult to come back but I always had hope we would respond in the second half and we did that well.
“Hopefully, everybody believes now that we are serious about the competition. I don’t know how many years we have been in the quarter-final in succession, I think it’s nine years. We have a chance to go to the semi-final now and we want to take it.
“We take every competition as an opportunity but of course the way is shorter now [in this one] so that is why we focus on that.”
Ironically enough the timing of Arsenal’s return to Reading next Monday has allowed the manager to play a stronger side at Bradford on Tuesday. However the substitute-cum-catalyst who hauled his side back into that stupefying tie, Olivier Giroud, is out with a back problem. Otherwise there are no new injuries from the victory over West Brom on Saturday and, in truth, the squad could be pretty similar.
“As always, we’ll have a side that has a good chance to go through,” said Wenger. “We know that in England, you need to be ready when you go into a cup game of this intensity.
“Of course we want to take our chance and go through to the semi-final. We’ll use an experienced side because we have time to recover before Monday’s match at Reading.”
After three relegations and two periods of administration, Bradford have dropped lower than any team ever to play in the Premier League.
At the start of the season, joint-chairman Julian Rhodes jokingly told BBC Sport that “it was David Wetherall's fault". The defender’s goal against Liverpool had kept up Paul Jewell’s side in 1999-2000 and they would overstretch themselves financially the following year.
“There’s some truth in what the chairman says,” said Wenger. “They over-achieved to be in the Premier League and they over-achieved to stay in the Premier League.
“I believe at some period, when you make exceptional results, people take it like it’s normal. In the modern context, for Bradford to be in the Premier League, they need to do something exceptional again. It’s even more difficult today.”
In the last two seasons, there has been a question mark as to whether the Bantams would even stay in the League structure - they finished 18th each time. However, under former Arsenal scout Phil Parkinson, they are pushing for promotion and have conceded only six goals in 11 home League Two games this season. They are also strong in penalty shoot-outs, their success at Wigan in the last round was their seventh straight success from spot-kick deciders.
“We have watched them on video and we will watch them again the afternoon before the game,” said Wenger. “They are a force in their league, they are a team who plays a very good football, very efficient as well.
“We know some of their players but we will study them more before the game. We take them very seriously. They are very efficient on set pieces, so we will have to be very strong on that. The two strikers are very dangerous. It is a team who is very compact and very direct as well.”
During their brief sojourn in the top-flight, Bradford remained undefeated against Arsenal, winning 2-1 in February 2000 and drawing 1-1 seven months later.
“It was a difficult place to go to when we played there in the Premier League,” said Wenger. “It is a passionate place with a very special atmosphere as well. That’s what you will get again in this match.”
Those results, coupled with decades in different divisions, mean Arsenal go into Tuesday’s cup tie attempting to end a 90-year stretch without a win at Bradford.
It was Leslie Knighton’s side that won 2-0 in April 29, 1922, a result that sealed the fate of both sides. Arsenal rallied in the last few games to avoid relegation and finish 17th.
Bradford, however, went down with Manchester United.
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