Belfast Telegraph

Wenger stays calm in eye of Arsenal storm

By Sam Wallace

Since 1997, Arsene Wenger has successfully steered his club without fail into the Champions League group stages, and over those years Arsenal have benefited from the income and prestige that comes with being an established part of the elite of European football.

In that time they have won three Premier League titles, signed the likes of Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas and built one of the best stadiums in the world.

Should they slip up tonight in north-east Italy and allow humble Udinese to claim only their third Champions League group stage qualification then, all of a sudden, the world will look a very different place tomorrow morning.

Some of the lustre that marks Arsenal out as one of European football's most famous clubs will be gone and wherever they go this season, starting with Old Trafford on Sunday, the mocking chant, “Thursday nights on Channel Five”, will surely follow.

The Europa League is not where Wenger, or the club, see themselves in the great European pecking order.

In the short term it would affect the thinking of the players they hope to sign in this last week of the transfer window.

In the longer term it would leave the club scrambling this season to make sure they are not left behind in qualifying for next year's Champions League. For Wenger it would be a painful personal blow.

It might seem like open season on Wenger at the moment but, however haunted he looks on the touchline, the rest of the time he does not carry himself like a man with the worries of the world on his shoulders. He was in good form yesterday.

When he sat down to talk with newspaper reporters at Luton airport, he described the latest tale of woe concerning Jack Wilshere's injury before adding the deadpan postscript, “It's not ideal”, for comic effect.

If the pressure is on Wenger then he does not show it, unless it is those slightly deranged moments during games when he throws water bottles or rubs distractedly at his hair.

The rest of the time he is calm and jovial.

The problem for Wenger is that after six seasons without a trophy a number of factors are combining to create the perfect storm around his team: the departures of Fabregas and Samir Nasri, injuries to key players, a bumpy start to the season and this awkward Champions League qualifier coupled with his reluctance to spend money on transfers.

“It is very difficult to explain (how vital) the Champions League is for us,” he said.

“We want to compete with the best teams in Europe and the only way to do this is to compete in the Champions League.

“It has a big meaning for me, a big meaning for the players and a big meaning for the club.

“If you are there on a consistent level (like Arsenal) it has a big significance for you.”

Earlier he had batted away any suggestion that there is a serious problem at the club.

“We still have a very strong squad and that's what will be at stake (against Udinese) and in the coming weeks, and we will strengthen our squad, of course, in the coming weeks.

“Hopefully we can manage to do that,” he added.

“I believe in the players I have and sometimes, the fact that you lose big players gets the team on the edge a little bit.

“It forces each of them to give a bit more, fight a bit together and that's of course what we will want to show.”

The truth is that, even allowing for suspensions and Nasri's departure, Arsenal have a good enough XI tonight to win this game, although the same cannot be said of the team that Wenger will be able to pick for Old Trafford where he will be without the suspended Alex Song and Gervinho.

What Wenger has to deal with tonight is the psychological effect on his players of the departure of yet another team-mate for what seem to be greener pastures.

“I am a realist so I have no illusions about that,” Wenger said. “But I think it's part of the modern life of a professional football player. It's not that by coincidence that everybody suddenly lands at Man City.”

By that he meant that they are moving for the money. But if Arsenal fail to secure qualification tonight, City will have one more advantage over them.

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