Wenger shifts focus to satisfy thirst for silver
Aston villa 2
Whisper it quietly, but Arsene Wenger, a man who has generally sniffed at the Carling Cup as he would a glass of plonk, wants to win the trophy he once dismissed as so inconsequential that even if he won it five times, it would still be three times less important than qualifying for the Champions League group stages.
"If you win the League Cup, can you honestly say you have won a trophy?" Wenger scoffed in February. Well, according to the Frenchman's great chum in the Premier League, Gerard Houllier, the Arsenal manager is serious about that same trophy this year.
After five barren years, the yearning for something with ribbons on it is growing harder to ignore. Wenger has promised to start with a strong team in tomorrow's quarter-final against Wigan that could include Robin van Persie for the first time since August after an ankle injury.
But missing Cesc Fabregas, Abou Diaby and Thomas Vermaelen through injury, he dare not risk any more damage to the spine of his team, especially with victory over Partizan Belgrade on Wednesday week required to guarantee staying in the Champions League.
Wenger says he does not worry about his legacy -- "I have my pride, (but) what matters to me is Arsenal, more than my reputation" -- but those close to him suggest front-page allegations about his private life, back-page criticism of his latest crop of boy wonders and Jose Mourinho calling him a "loser" (and that was just last week), have left Wenger more desperate than ever to shove some silverware down his critics' throats.
Houllier, who gushes that Wenger is "part of (my) universe, part of (my) life", certainly seems to think Wenger will respond by taking it to the max at the Emirates tomorrow night. "I think he is playing the League Cup fully," the Villa manager said.
It is bad news for Wigan, for Arsenal have got some of their mojo back, based on this performance.
Playing with a wit and style of which Villa could only dream, and with more patterns than a Laura Ashley catalogue, they made the home team look like jobbing part-timers. Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri, Marouane Chamakh and Jack Wilshere all scored goals which were special in their own way.
But before we get carried away, there is this to consider: Ciaran Clark was allowed through twice and, fluent as Arsenal were, one was left wondering what might have happened had Houllier not made the mistake of starting Robert Pires in the pocket behind John Carew.
Introducing a 37-year-old who moves with as much grace as an arthritic mallard into a contest against the most fluid team in the world's fastest league was, in hindsight, laughable, and made you wonder whether Wenger, who greased the wheels of Pires' move to Villa two weeks ago, had sent in his very own Trojan horse.
"It is not Robert," Houllier said, ignoring the fact that Pires' tendons are tighter than garrotte wires.
"We are short of personnel," he added, by way of further explanation.
One can only imagine what Houllier's bete noire, Stephen Ireland, a second-half substitute, made of that.