Arsene Wenger ready for 'battle' to set record straight
Gunners boss still wary of Mourinho-less Blues
The brash self-confidence of Jose Mourinho was such that it probably never even crossed his mind that the now infamous description of Arsene Wenger could ever be turned on its head. Yet here we are, less than two years after Chelsea had followed up Mourinho's "specialist in failure" attack with a 6-0 win over Arsenal, and it was Wenger being presented with the open goal.
"So, Arsene, if Chelsea can't pull away from the relegation fight, would that make them specialists in failure?"
Wenger paused before predictably deciding not to reopen that particular feud but the accompanying grin was in itself still telling. "I see where you want to take me but, honestly, I'm not ready to travel," he said.
Until very recently, it was the sort of question that would surely have been greeted with an icy stare and perhaps even a threat to cancel the press conference rather than humour. Just the mention of Mourinho usually prompts a visible change in Wenger's entire body language and, for all the denials, it is obvious that the absence of his old nemesis will drastically alter the mood around the Emirates Stadium this weekend.
Mourinho certainly still loomed over yesterday's press conference. Yet rather than talk about him, Wenger preferred to suggest that it would not matter if it was Guus Hiddink, Stamford the Lion or even Gunnersaurus looking over from the away dugout at 4pm on Sunday.
"I look at the quality of the players on the football pitch and never at who sits on the bench," he said. "We do not analyse the character of the manager who sits on the bench on the other side."
What that overlooks, of course, is how the personality of any team can be so dramatically influenced by who is sitting on the bench. And there has been no manager in world football better than Mourinho at setting up a team to frustrate, antagonise and sometimes even physically intimidate Arsenal before striking at their old weakness to a well-aimed counter-attack.
The statistics tell this story emphatically. Whereas Wenger's Premier League record against Mourinho stands at no wins, six defeats and five draws, his combined tally versus the other 10 Chelsea managers he has faced over the past two decades reads 14 wins, seven defeats and six draws.
The last of those victories, however, dates back to November 2011 and Wenger did not even attempt yesterday to deny that his team must also overcome a psychological barrier on Sunday. "Yes, it is another one where we can show we have moved forward," he said.
That Arsenal really have tangibly moved forward has been repeatedly evident during this past year. There are the four wins in four matches against the two Manchester clubs, the victories against Bayern Munich and then Olympiakos in Athens to stay in the Champions League and of course the Community Shield triumph over Chelsea.
Wenger refused to shake Mourinho's hand that day and it is understood that they have not exchanged so much as a word for more than two years. Yet it was also so typical of their rivalry that, even amid the spectacular wider collapse, Chelsea still found a way to controversially beat Arsenal in the most recent clash back in September.
Wenger blames that defeat on Mike Dean's decision to send off Gabriel rather than Diego Costa and, amid all the lingering acrimony from that match, there was a pointed warning for his players. "We have to be prepared for a battle because Costa gives you a fight," said Wenger.
That Arsenal are now better equipped to handle their previously more streetwise opponents is clear. Not only has Petr Cech swapped sides and the likes of Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard left Chelsea but Arsenal have themselves gradually added resilience and experience in recent years. Cech, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Mathieu Flamini and Olivier Giroud have collectively already lifted just about every major honour that matters in football. They are also finding many more different ways to win football matches. That has rarely been more evident than during these past seven weeks in grinding out mostly positive results even while key players - notably Cazorla, Sanchez, Francis Coquelin and briefly Ozil - were injured.
Ozil and Sanchez are expected to play on Sunday but perhaps the single most significant nugget of good news yesterday was the sight of Coquelin back training at the club's London Colney base. Danny Welbeck is also due to join the first-team squad on Monday.
Sunday will come too soon for Coquelin but his availability during the run-in to the Premier League season might feasibly prove decisive. "We have done extremely well during all this period when we had big players out," said Wenger. "We have certainly improved our battling potential through big solidarity, togetherness and because we have more experience in the team. We lost Cazorla and Coquelin, who are just as important as Sanchez. It was important that we showed we can cope with that."
Wenger was rather less forthcoming on what might have changed at Chelsea since they were lifting the Premier League title last May. His real thoughts on the long-term impact of Mourinho's more confrontational style of management would be fascinating but, for now, anything that could breed any complacency ahead of Sunday is being avoided.
"They are not in this title race but they are direct rivals because of the quality of their team," said Wenger. "I think this season is exceptional circumstances for them. They will be back. The lack of confidence is linked to one or two unexpected bad results. Confidence goes quicker than ever. It's all very tight and fragile. Nobody could predict that, but it can happen to anybody. The bad luck for them is that, this season, the league is more difficult for everybody. It will be a very intense battle."
He is also certain that Chelsea will pull clear of any relegation threat. "The team has too much potential," said Wenger. "I rate Guus Hiddink highly as a manager with an exceptional career. He's one of the leading managers who has represented this Dutch philosophy and exported it across Europe. With Cruyff, Van Gaal, Hiddink and Advocaat, they've been present in all the big clubs in Europe. But it's down to the characteristics of the players. They have the same players."
And so back to that original "specialists in failure" jibe. The facts since that outburst are as follows. Mourinho has subsequently led Chelsea to two trophies in the League Cup and Premier League but, by his own admission, they were out of the running to finish in the top four and even qualify for the Champions League when he was sacked one month ago. Wenger has also subsequently won two trophies - a pair of FA Cups - and always maintained Arsenal in the Champions League. Add the Premier League this season and he will have been the undoubted victor in round two of a rivalry that, for all yesterday's public diplomacy, has been just about as bitter, personal and compelling as it gets. We can only hope one day for a trilogy. (© Daily Telegraph, London)