'We shall overcome' preaches Wenger
It was the news that Arsenal fans did not expect to hear but Arsène Wenger last night declared that he still believed his team will win the Premier League and the European Cup this season, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that suggests elimination from the Champions League by Liverpool tonight will end their hopes of a trophy.
The power of positive thinking had the Arsenal manager in its thrall when he arrived at Anfield yesterday on a run of 11 games that have yielded only two victories. With the tie balanced at 1-1, he brushed aside suggestions from Rafael Benitez that Arsenal's title challenge was over and said that his team simply had to win their remaining five Premier League games – including the visit to Old Trafford this Sunday – to clinch the title.
The Arsenal manager said that his belief in his team tonight at Anfield – and in their pursuit of Manchester United – was unwavering after Middlesbrough held Sir Alex Ferguson's team to a draw on Sunday. With a conviction bordering on an evangelical fervour Wenger said his team, "could win anywhere in the world". His players may well need some of that tonight if they are to score against a Liverpool team who have conceded just two goals in five home games in Europe this season.
"I still believe we will finish champions in this league," Wenger said. "The [United] result helped a lot. If they'd won, I'd have thought we couldn't win the league but, now, I still believe we'll do it.
"You don't believe we can do it, but I believe we can. We did have a dip recently it's true – we can't deny that. But football is strange, sometimes. We feel as well that we dropped a few points, but we've been consistent since the beginning of the season. So it's possible we can win the last five games. I said that before the Liverpool game as well, but I said five games and one draw would do it. It is compulsory that we win at Old Trafford."
There will be no Theo Walcott in the Arsenal starting line-up tonight, Wenger instead preferring the greater experience of Emmanuel Eboué on the right wing. The 19-year-old Englishman will remain his manager's best attacking option on the bench – an indication that Wenger is not prepared to gamble everything on getting the crucial away goal right from the very start of the match.
Wenger's bold predictions will do nothing to dispel the suggestion that the pressure is finally getting to the Arsenal manager but yesterday he appeared more upbeat than normal for a man whose season has disintegrated in the last month. The Frenchman certainly did not give any credence to the point of view of Benitez who reminded Wenger that he had written off Liverpool's title chances when they first fell behind in the race.
"It will be really difficult for Arsenal to win the league, because they have two teams ahead of them," Benitez said. "I remember two months ago, he [Wenger] told journalists that it was almost impossible for Liverpool to win the league because there were three teams ahead of them. Now there are two good teams ahead of Arsenal, teams who rarely lose, so the Premier League will be really difficult for them. I don't say it is impossible, but their main aim for trophies is the Champions League."
Nevertheless, Wenger said that his increasingly agitated state on the touchline, typified by his behaviour against Liverpool at the Emirates, was not a reflection of his fears for his team's long-term success. "I must say I'm physically agitated more because I want to score the goals rather than because I'm really nervous," he said. "Sometimes, I've had periods in the season when I've been really nervous and angry. This is more to help the team.
"We battle very hard to get back into a game, but we are missing just a fraction in the final third. It's more, frankly, to help my team than because I'm nervous or angry. It's not because I've not won anything for a long time. If I'd won every trophy last year, I'd be the same. What I've done or not done is not important."
Tomas Rosicky's hamstring injury problems mean that he is out for the rest of the season and unlikely to figure for the Czech Republic in the Euro 2008 finals; Robin van Persie is fit again although unlikely to start for Arsenal. The spirit of victory over Milan in San Siro in the previous round was invoked although once again it appeared that Wenger was taking radical measures to reinvigorate his team.
"Similar spirit that's needed and wanted," Wenger said. "I believe that we have to go into the game with the same positive attitude. It will be a very exciting game. Of course, both teams will be under pressure, but that's normal at this stage of a season. Defeat is not unthinkable. You have to accept you might lose, but what is important is that you can believe you can win. But if I didn't believe we could win the Champions League, I wouldn't be sitting here."