James Lawton: Arsene Wenger values need to show their worth
Gunners boss sticks with his principles to get his troops back in the hunt for trophies but City will test title claims
Published 21/12/2015 | 02:30
Is that really Arsene Wenger stepping so carefully through the minefield of the Premier League which has blown Jose Mourinho away from Chelsea's civil war and left Louis van Gaal wearing ever more acutely the expression of a man awaiting the same fate.
Coming into his 20th year in the job, still assailed by the belief that his old title-winning touch has long been history, does Wenger still have the nerve and the judgement to deliver a major success?
We will know a little better tonight when he hopes that at a frequently sceptical Emirates Stadium Arsenal can put still more flesh on the bones of their revival by defeating Manchester City - and make a huge statement about their potential to claim their first title in 12 years.
As Chelsea fight to recover from delivering the last rights to Stamford Bridge's ultimate folk hero - Wenger's most searing critic - and City continue to salivate over the possibility of replacing the careworn Manuel Pellegrini with Pep Guardiola after his announced defection from Bayern Munich at the end of the season, Wenger certainly has reason to relish the irony, and potential vindication, of it all.
With Van Gaal wearing leaden boots as he treads water at Old Trafford - and Mourinho touting his now shop-soiled wares so ferociously - Wenger has only one safely entrenched rival in the upper reaches of the Premier League in the fight for love and glory and redemption - league-leading Leicester's Claudio Ranieri.
Wenger, 66, and Ranieri, 64, are suddenly the most viable Sunshine Boys since George Burns and Walter Matthau.
Of course, Ranieri is at the moment occupying his own Hollywood-style fantasy, a comeback of extraordinary dimensions which has both embarrassed and tipped over the edge a Mourinho who in his time has been as scathing about him as he has Wenger.
Ranieri sent in a flock of chickens to roost in Mourinho's battered psyche when he inflicted still another defeat on Chelsea at the start of last week.
But then if Ranieri, hounded out of Greece last year after a massive pratfall with the national team - defeat by the Faroe Islands, has performed a miracle at Leicester it is one which the hardest critics insist has a limited shelf life.
There is certainly much less cause for doubt about Wenger's chances of stemming, permanently, the sneers that have built around his record stewardship of Arsenal.
He has nursed Mesut Ozil back to sublime form as he topped the table of Premier League assists and offered a rare picture of contentment while enjoying a brief and, in his manager's calculations, a hopefully sustaining sunshine break.
Arsenal, being Arsenal, have encountered occasional banana skins on their way to second place behind Leicester and qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League.
Also true is that Barcelona players roared their pleasure when they were drawn against Arsenal, which was one indicator of the London's club slide in prestige since that Paris final in 2006.
Then, Barca had plenty of reasons to be relieved when they collected the trophy after Arsenal had been reduced to ten men, not least when Thierry Henry, of all people, misfired when spoon-fed a perfect opportunity to apply a winning sword-stroke.
That was a night of the deepest anguish for Wenger and there have been times in recent years when he seemed to be suffering football death by a thousand cuts on the touchline.
Mourinho led the critics when he said that his rival's reign had become some ultimate exercise in futility.
"I have sympathy with all my rivals because it is a difficult job. There is one outside the list, but good for him."
The former Chelsea manager refused to name the great survivor but did add, coyly: "You know the one - the one who can speak about the referees before the game, can push people in the technical area, can cry in the morning, cry in the afternoon and nothing happens.
"He cannot achieve but he can still keep the job, still be the king. It's a privilege."
If the thinly-veiled diatribe spoke of years of enmity, and the flashpoint when an exasperated Wenger (left) pushed Mourinho on the touchline, the reality was that the fired Chelsea manager was merely adding some personal bile to the growing conviction that since his Invincibles of 2004 - and that near-miss in the Champions League final - Wenger had indeed been leading the most charmed of managerial lives.
Some fans burned tickets outside the Emirates Stadium, complaining they were paying the highest prices for underachievement that had stretched too long.
Yet if it was true Arsenal's tolerance of Wenger's trophy-winning drought from his FA Cup win in 2005 to success in the same competition in 2014 and last year was unique among Europe's most seriously ambitious clubs, his defenders at the Emirates say that he has presided, seamlessly, over the move from the antiquated Highbury stadium to the revenue-hoarding Emirates.
They also say that never have Arsenal looked in danger of falling away from the elite of English football, never been detached from the lifeblood of Champions' League revenue, as Manchester United were so shockingly in the wake of Alex Ferguson's departure.
Perhaps, too, there is a deeper issue that runs beyond the imperative of winning the big trophies.
Without such a possibility there is, of course, an inevitable sense of whiling away the years without the hard edge of high ambition, but then Wenger has never abandoned either his deepest beliefs about how football should be played - or his understanding that all of the game, however beautifully fashioned, has to have an end result.
For the moment he has rescued life in Europe, even if only for a visit to the suicide ally known as the Nou Camp, and his most serious chance of a league title since fading of the pomp of such as Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira.
He has kept the faith, despite the most tumultuous doubts - and, sometimes it couldn't be clearer as he grimaces on the touchline, some quite distraught self-questioning - and no doubt he still carry some of it against City tonight.
He says: "Of course it is true that whatever your belief in how football should be played, you want to win the great prizes. It is why you do it but then I suppose the trick is not losing your values on the way."
It is a statement that should caution even the most virulent of his critics. Tonight, certainly, they have to accept that he remains doggedly, and sometimes quite beautifully, in the game.
Arsenal v Man City,
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