“I get cards, phone calls but, honestly, if nobody reminds me I forget. It was always like that. Even when I was 25 or 30, I never thought of it as a special day. For me the best present is a good game.”
Arsène Wenger is 64 on Tuesday and he could not care less.
Football has consumed his life and he freely admits he is too old to change now.
Wenger’s upbringing was French but his footballing childhood was heavily influenced by the German game that prevailed in his teens and early 20s. His village was so close to the border between two countries that the likes of Munich, Stuttgart and Frankfurt were all nearer than Paris. It was the obvious point of reference.
And now German football is back.
Their powerhouse team, Bayern Munich, won the Champions League final last season, squeezing out compatriots Borussia Dortmund in the dying minutes at Wembley.
But it was Jurgen Klopp’s side that won much of the admiration.
Artistic yet athletic, youthful yet crafty, they were the romantic’s choice. However, as Wenger found out in 2006, the Champions League rarely does fairytales when the silverware is within sight.
|Arsenal: Flamini (concussion), Sanogo (back), Walcott (abdominal), Podolski (hamstring), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Diaby (knee)Borussia Dortmund: Kehl (ankle), Piszczek (hip). Gundogan (spine)|
On the eve of Dortmund’s trip to Emirates Stadium for matchday three in Champions League Group F, many were looking for similarities between the two sides. Wenger found only a few.
“Klopp has done extremely well and given a new lease of life to Dortmund,” said the manager. “Overall, you can only congratulate him for the quality of the job he has done, it is exceptional.
“They have created a style with plenty of players who have been bought in. But they bought with very intelligent scouting.
“They have done it in a little bit different way [to us] but, as well, not in the most expensive way and they deserve credit.
“I feel sympathy for them too of course because they lost big players, like Mario Goetze, at a very young age. We have gone through that. It hurts.
“When we played them two seasons ago in the Champions League they were short of experience. They reached the final last year so they have certainly more confidence than before. Yes they lost Goetze, but they got Marco Reus, so the structure and quality of the team is similar as before. It's still based on Polish quality.”
As an example, Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny called compatriot Robert Lewandowski the best striker in Europe at the pre-match press conference.
Of course, Dortmund should have the highest respect for Arsenal too. Right now, everything is coming off for Wenger’s men. They are two points clear at the top of the Premier League and lead Group F by three.
Victory on Tuesday would, in all probability, put them a draw away from qualification and a win away from securing preferential treatment in the knockout round.
“On that front it is an important game of course. It is not a decider but it's an important one,” said Wenger. “For me, it's an 80 per cent game for the qualifier. If we win the game and we win the other home game we know we are there.”
As good as Arsenal have been, the manager accepts question marks will remain until the ‘big’ teams have been beaten. Tottenham are the only domestic title contenders they have played but, then again, Napoli were expected to be a test on matchday two yet were blown away by perhaps that finest half-hour of Arsenal’s season so far. And that bar is very high indeed.
“I agree,” said Wenger on the issue of opposition. “I said in the last press conference that we will know more about ourselves after Dortmund and at the end of November. The real test is in front of us. We can’t be triumphant at the moment. We have big targets, big teams and big fixtures to come.
“I'm not especially unhappy but, in life, you can always improve,” he went on. “What makes a top-level sportsman or a top-level team is that they always have that surge for improvement.”
Where exactly does this apply to his currently rampant Arsenal side?
“The way we win the ball back and the use it offensively. [We need] more consistency in that.”
Top of their table, scoring scintillating goals… and yet innate perfectionism leaves Wenger consistently perturbed.
It is a quality that has made two magnificent Arsenal teams and, defying predictions of doom, may be pushing him to towards a third.
It is only the ‘happy return’ that can hold the attention of Arsène Wenger.
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