Thursday 17 August 2017

Wenger goes back to scene of the crime

Jeremy Wilson

When Arsene Wenger takes his place in the opposition dugout of Marseille's Stade Velodrome tonight, it would be understandable if the normal pre-match butterflies are replaced by a rather more sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

After 15 years in England it is sometimes easy to forget that, in what almost feels like a previous life, Wenger spent a decade managing in France which culminated amid the notorious backdrop of perhaps the darkest chapter in French football history.

'L'affair VA-OM' still resonates deeply in France and relates to when Bernard Tapie's Marseille were found to have bribed opposition players at a time when Wenger's Monaco had been their most consistent challengers.

Tapie was subsequently jailed and Marseille were relegated, but the real scale or impact of their corruption remains open to speculation.

The one proven case relates to a match against Valenciennes in 1993 when three players were offered bribes to "take their foot off the gas", but there have been other anecdotal allegations suggesting more widespread corruption.

Whatever the truth, the record books will forever state that Monaco won just one league title under Wenger, who believes his club would have won two further championships in what he called "normal circumstances".

Amazingly, Wenger's press conference last night at the Stade Velodrome was the first time that he has been back to Marseille's home ground since he left Monaco, and walked away from French football completely, 17 years ago.

Wenger has previously admitted that his experience with Monaco during the Marseille scandal prevented him from sleeping, and the story of him once having to be physically restrained during a shouting match with Tapie in the corridors adjacent to yesterday's press conference have gone done in French folklore.

Yet boosted by news that Thomas Vermaelen has agreed a new £80,000-a-week contract that commits him to Arsenal until 2015, he struck a conciliatory tone.

"I'm happy to go to back to Marseille because it is memories of passionate games," Wenger said. "Times have changed. I love Marseille as a city. It is a real football city."

But surely it had all stirred some uncomfortable memories? "That is over now because the owners (of Marseille) are not the same," Wenger said. "Now it is completely different. Football has changed in France. It was not the happiest period of French football."

For all the diplomacy, you do not have to delve too deeply into Wenger's life story to suspect that his experiences in Monaco were to influence a philosophy that is sometimes criticised for being almost too pure in its pursuit of the correct values in football.

"You are somewhere the product of the history of your life and of your genes," Wenger said. "How much I don't know. It was an interesting experience in my life. A career in management prepares you to fight against adversity.

"When a young manager asks me for advice, all you can say is, 'survive disappointments'. You cannot imagine a career of any manager without disappointment. It makes you stronger or you get out of the job."

Wenger's resilience has rarely been more tested than in the past six months but he regards the success in persuading Vermaelen, the club's vice-captain, to sign a new contract as an important step following such a unsettled summer.

"It gives a different message," Wenger said. "It looked like an exodus with everyone leaving the club but we are a happy club. We had the desire to extend and we were quite relaxed that he would sign."

Vermaelen's new contract also represents an expression of faith from Arsenal following minor surgery this year to both of the Belgium defender's ankles.

"The contract shows how much we trust," Wenger said. "We think it's a genetic accident that he had because he had it on both sides, exactly the same injury. But there's no medical reason why he should not play 50 games on the trot now."

Vermaelen is targeting the match against West Brom on Nov 5 for his comeback when Kieran Gibbs should also return following a stomach injury that has ruled him out of tonight's match. Aaron Ramsey has recovered from his tight hamstring and travelled yesterday to France with the Arsenal squad.

Marseille are progressing in Europe but languishing domestically; their coach Didier Deschamps is under pressure, while summer signings are struggling to make an impact; there is uncertainty about the club's ownership, and key players are unsettled.

As for their captain's view of the performances: "We're not solid at the back, and up front, we don't frighten anyone anymore," said goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.

Marseille have, however, beaten both Borussia Dortmund and Olympiakos to top Group F in the Champions League, and are usually tough opposition in the Stade Vélodrome. Wenger expects Marseille to sit deep and counter-attack, as they did successfully against Dortmund. Given Arsenal's defensive concerns, that is likely to lead to a cagey game, at least until someone scores. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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