Wenger's praise and caution for Barca's camaraderie
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
Arsene Wenger was cheerful, and yet a touch impatient. The draw with Hull City that had concluded minutes earlier was, you suspected, already a distant memory. Cutting short his post-match media duties, he explained that he had an urgent date with the television: more than 2,000 miles away in Gran Canaria, Barcelona were about to kick off against Las Palmas.
And so here we go again, tomorrow night at the Emirates: another set of best-laid plans, another puzzle in red and blue stripes, another instalment in a drama that has caused so much pleasure and pain over the years. "You admire, of course," Wenger said after watching Barcelona tear his Arsenal side apart in 2010. "And you worry."
Barcelona inspire complex and powerful emotions in Wenger. His regard for their success and footballing culture is deep and palpable. Here again, his praise for Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar was as genuine as it was warm.
But the scars run just as deep. Barcelona have made Wenger's heart ache like few other teams can.
It all began in December 1993, when his brilliant Monaco side were picked apart at the Nou Camp by Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Txiki Begiristain, and while the casts may have changed, the plot has not. Luis Enrique and Luis Figo in 1999; Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o in 2006; Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2010; Messi in 2010 and again in 2011. Now, the threat is triplicate: Messi, Suarez and Neymar an attacking swarm that few defences have been able to resist.
Here again, Wenger could not resist paying tribute, referencing the exquisite two-man penalty that Messi laid off to Suarez last weekend. "In French, we call it complicite," he said. "Apart from the individual qualities all three have, what is very difficult to find is such a good understanding. They have a great solidarity.
"When you see a player like Messi - who can score his 300th goal - give the ball to Suarez when he had the opportunity, that means there's really something in there.
"Camaraderie. I believe Suarez gives that to a team. He did it at Liverpool, he did it playing with [Edinson] Cavani and [Diego] Forlan. Suarez is the kind of guy who manages to create that spirit."
Naturally, it is tempting to wonder how things might have turned out if Wenger had managed to bring Suarez to Arsenal in the summer of 2013, as he tried to do. Does Wenger ever ponder what might have been?
"Before," he replied. "But not now." Many managers are wary of doling out this sort of praise to the opposition ahead of a big match. Wenger rarely is. He is a coach, sure; but he is also a connoisseur. Somebody remarked on the sense of fun that Messi, Suarez and Neymar seemed to exude on the pitch. "But it is fun to play football," Wenger replied. "Don't forget that."
Of course, waxing lyrical about Barcelona's front three is one thing.
Stopping them is another, which is why Saturday's goalless draw against Hull told us absolutely nothing with Arsenal's 69pc possession virtually a mirror image of what they can expect against Barcelona.
Wenger showed against Bayern Munich this season that he was prepared to sit deep against stronger opposition, and he may try the wait-and-see approach again.
"I believe that at some point in the game we'll have to be deep, because of the way they play," he said. "You can't always stop them high. In these big games, with the first tie at home, we can't be stupid. Many times we've won away and conceded at home. We have to find a good balance."
A radical shift, perhaps, for players who are used to having the ball, not chasing it. But as Wenger said: "We have to get used to it."
Still, even as he sounded a note of caution, it was impossible to ignore the exhilaration in his voice, too. These are the games he cherishes; these are the nights he lives for. Who knows how many more will come his way?
And so, once more to the video room and the training pitches. Once more the admiration and the anxiety. One more tilt at mending a heart that has been snapped a hundred times, yet still refuses to break.