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Wenger in fear of a knockout blow

Gunners on guard as they stand on the brink of European failure

By Kevin Garside

Arsenal would have stood top of the Premier League if they had won at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.

Tonight they could be out of the Champions League.

This is the story of Arsène Wenger's last decade at the north London club, a tale of unfulfilled promise, of frustration, of inconsistency and - ultimately - of failure.

Wenger's Champions League record of 18 successive group campaigns is, of course, substantial. With an ounce more luck in the 2006 final he would have won it had Arsenal's 10 men held out for the last 14 minutes against Barcelona.

That will not spare him tonight should results conspire against the Frenchman, even if Arsenal were to thrash Dynamo Zagreb.

It ought to be a matter of deep concern that they find themselves so desperately positioned in a group including smaller outfits from Croatia and Greece.

This might be the era of Bayern Munich and Barcelona, but a club of Arsenal's stature and prestige should not be embroiled in a dogfight with Europe's fringe elements. And this following a defeat at West Bromwich that cost them the opportunity to lead the Premier League.

The 2-1 loss at The Hawthorns played into the hands of the told-you-so tendency, who believe Wenger's time at the Emirates has passed.

So what if they pirouetted past Manchester United in a blur of back-heels and sumptuous finishing last month?

So what if they put two past Bayern to inflict on the imperious Germans a first defeat of the season?

We know how this ends.

Arsenal habitually make the knockout stages of the Champions League, 15 times on the spin in fact, but for the past five seasons they have not won a knockout tie and in this campaign are struggling to emerge from the group.

Wenger accepts results in Europe have been poor, but does not connect them with the dropped points in the Premier League against Spurs and West Bromwich, which he sees as inevitable elements in the cycle of any season.

"We are in the mode of disappointment after results in the Premier League. We want to bounce back," he said.

"You can go through a spell like that. It is about how you respond to disappointment, that's why this match is good for us.

"There is not much time to change anything. It is what we did away from home that cost us. In Zagreb (a 2-1 defeat) we were caught on the counter and after that with 10 men we had to run after the score and they scored a second goal, but I don't think too much has to change.

"We have a good history in the Champions League, but I agree this season against teams where we are favourites we have been disappointing with our results."

The return with Dynamo, who fielded a player who subsequently failed a drugs test, brings that issue back to the fore.

Wenger is an outspoken critic of both the rule that allows a team to escape if just one player is caught and what he sees as football's lax attitude towards testing.

Dynamo's Arijan Ademi has since been banned for four year,s but the club's position in the competition is not under threat.

"I don't want to speculate too much on the career of the player. He has been punished but it's a surprising rule," Wenger said.

" You cannot say, 'OK they had a doped player and the result stands', that means you basically accept doping, but we accept the rule."

Ironically, a Uefa doping unit paid Arsenal a visit on Friday, much to Wenger's amusement. Wisely, he did not seek to make the indiscretion of one opponent the reason why Arsenal failed in Zagreb.

"We have to look more at ourselves. We were caught on the counter-attack and set piece, basic problems that we face in 90 per cent of our games," he said.

"We want to win our game. That's all we can do."

Pragmatism is a function of failure, though naturally Wenger does not see it that way in regard to the possibility of a Europa League demotion.

"We would take the competition seriously, but we are not out yet," he said. "The problem of playing in the Europa League is exaggerated a little bit in this country. We play Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon. It is the same as Thursday night, Sunday afternoon. There are examples in Portugal and Spain where the teams have taken the competition seriously and won their championships."

However the chips fall, Wenger does not see an English team profiting in the age of Barcelona.

"Technically they are better than everybody else, it is as simple as that. Barcelona dominate Europe with that generation for five, six years," he said.

"They do not win it every year, but they are in the semi-final or final."

Belfast Telegraph


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