Wenger fears Cup shock would derail title charge
MEMORIES etched in sepia of a flawless Wembley pitch and a pearl-like ball, its surface devoid of laces, maintain their gentle pull on the heartstrings of Arsène Wenger.
As a football-mad youth in Alsace-Lorraine, the annual FA Cup final broadcast was the staple that fostered his love of the English game.
The idea that he might take tonight's engagement against fallen Coventry lightly insults his attachment to the grand old pot that did so much to fire the imagination of those looking through the May keyhole from afar, as well as bind this country to its national sport.
Arsenal are in, says Wenger, the "moment of a lifetime", by which he means at an optimum point in the evolution of this team where anything is possible. Wenger would not want to ruin the moment by emulating the experience of last year when Arsenal were dumped out in the fifth round by Championship side Blackburn.
"When you are on a run it is important not to interrupt it with a setback," said Wenger.
"That is what is at stake. Every win makes the team stronger and more confident. We do not want to be up and down and up and down. It is important we continue our consistent run. The team is growing in confidence. It is important not to question yourselves again, are we good enough?
"February is an important month where we play all the big teams so it is important to build up our strength and to trust our consistency.
"Last year's (defeat) was a big disappointment. It was the first time in 16 years that we lost against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup. It was a great warning. At the moment it's just our next game and we want to win it."
The arrival of Coventry at the Emirates provides another nostalgic tweak to the Wenger landscape, and a reminder of the dangers of over-exposure in the pursuit of footballing dreams. When he assumed the throne at Arsenal, Coventry were a Premier League opponent of some substance.
"I know much more than you think about Coventry City," he said.
"First of all, when I arrived here they were one of the good teams. I had many difficult games against them. We have to prepare seriously for this game.
"We want to gain respect, and through our attitude that is the best way to gain respect."
The Frenchman's attachment to the competition further endears him to English football folk. Delivered in his accented Wengerisms, his love of the oldest knockout competition in the game is a lesson in curation and restates the value of history and tradition which is often overlooked in these Champions League-heavy days.
"The only competition I could watch in France when I was a kid was the English FA Cup final. On black and white television, every year we saw the Cup final," he said.
"That's a very prestigious competition for me. It is true that maybe it does not have the glamour anymore nowadays that it had in the '60s and '70s but it is still for me a very important competition.
"I just remember that I was always admiring Wembley's pitch because I used to play on really bad pitches and the white ball was for me a dream, to have this kind of ball. I played with a ball with laces at the time so that was always something special, too."
The FA Cup remains the only major trophy won by Coventry, and it came against north London opposition.
The victory against Tottenham in 1987 is still celebrated by members of that team, who gather episodically to toast the achievement. Though Coventry were in the top tier, they were the same heavy underdogs they are tonight.
The imbalance in power has not diminished the appetite for a game set for a full house, evidence according to Wenger of the growing power and attraction of his team.
"It is just an indication of how big this club is," he said. "I must say I have absolutely total respect for that, that people on the Friday night come to this game and that it is a sell-out. It is absolutely fantastic."
Wenger spent last night poring over tapes of Coventry before finalising a line-up that will show one guaranteed change from the team that beat Fulham last Saturday, with Lukasz Fabianski coming in between the sticks.
There might also be a starting place for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, returning after six months out of the game with a knee injury.
Wenger does not believe the lay-off has disrupted the stellar march of one the England's brightest prospects in World Cup year.
"He is in advance of where every player of his age is," he said. "He has just been handicapped by injury but overall he is in a very strong position." (© Independent News Service)
ARSENAL V COVENTRY, LIVE, BT SPORT 1, 7.45pm