Saturday 16 December 2017

Wailing Wenger way off the mark

Arsene Wenger. Photo: PA
Arsene Wenger. Photo: PA

Sam Wallace

However much he claims otherwise, there are few criticisms of Arsenal that will cut Arsene Wenger quite as much as those from which emanated from Barcelona.

That they were not ambitious or brave enough in their attacking play -- that there was no "joy" about them -- is usually the charge levelled at more conservative opponents of Arsenal who come to the Emirates and dig in for a result.

Unfortunately, there is no denying the statistics from Tuesday's game which -- if we were looking for a parallel in the Premier League -- would cast Wenger's team as the small-fry from the lower reaches, a Wolverhampton Wanderers, for instance, to Barca's Arsenal.

The 790 passes completed by Barcelona to Arsenal's 214. The fact that Arsenal mustered not a single shot on target to Barca's 10. That Xavi managed 108 passes in all compared to 25 from Jack Wilshere, Arsenal's best individual. Even with the red card for Robin van Persie, this was overwhelming evidence contradicting Wenger's claim that 11 Arsenal men would have triumphed.

As it stands, Arsenal are no less deserving of the nickname 'Barca Lite' than they were when Lionel Messi put four past them at the Nou Camp last year. 'Barca Lite' should be regarded as a compliment. Arsenal are a lot closer in style to this great team than the rest of the world manages.

In the space of 10 days, Arsenal's dream of all four trophies has been reduced sharply to a more realistic two. The Champions League was always a long shot ever since defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga in the group stage left them such a daunting tie against Barcelona in the last-16 round.

As for the Carling Cup final, that was a game affected by the looming prospect of Tuesday's game.

So, what now for Arsenal? Having said before the Carling Cup final that he could imagine winning all four trophies, it would appear Wenger has refined that vision to one. He wants to win the Premier League and by the sounds of it, he is prepared to sacrifice the FA Cup tie at Old Trafford to get it.


Cesc Fabregas and Wojciech Szczesny were unlikely to have played in that game even if they had not been injured against Barcelona.

Arsenal's next four league games up to the north London derby at Tottenham on April 20 are against West Bromwich (away), Blackburn (home), Blackpool (away) and Liverpool (home). If they are in contention come the Manchester United game on May 1, no one will be talking about the defeat to Barca.

Arsenal winning the Champions League was always a distant prospect, given the strength of the two Spanish sides in the competition. That Arsenal have gone out earlier than expected makes it look worse. But in reality this season is about a window of opportunity for Arsenal in the Premier League.

With United so average by their standards, with Chelsea and Manchester City's form so unreliable and with Liverpool 18 points off the top, Arsenal have a chance. Yes, the nature of their defeat to Barcelona looks bad, but if it had come in the semi-finals, or even the final, it would have been just as chastening and the extra games would have taken their toll.

Win their remaining league games, including that one against United at the Emirates, and Arsenal will be champions for the fourth time under Wenger. That is a much more realistic prospect than winning the Champions League ever was.

For that reason, it was a surprise Wenger risked a not fully fit Van Persie against Barcelona. It is less surprising that he would never have chosen to risk Fabregas in the FA Cup on Saturday when there is so much at stake in the league. It would be foolish to bet against Alex Ferguson also fielding a weakened team.

Arsenal's title rivals -- United, City and Chelsea -- will be that bit more anxious now Wenger's side are out of Europe and free to concentrate on the league. They will have had enjoyed seeing Wenger and his team humbled on Tuesday. Then they will have started to fret about what that leaves Arsenal free to do in the title race. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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