Wenger unfazed by hype of Henry
The rest of us might see the Champions League draw that pits Thierry Henry against Arsenal as an engrossing story of the prodigal son's return, but Arsene Wenger insisted yesterday that facing his most celebrated former player meant nothing to him.
The Arsenal manager was in no mood to start the tributes for Henry after Barcelona were drawn to play his club in the pick of the Champions League quarter-finals. Instead he expressed his frustration that a match of such consequence should be boiled down to the "artificial" theme of individuals and their own personal history.
It is a theory that Wenger has warmed to in recent weeks, arguing against what he regards as a media obsession with personalities and feuds. Yesterday he reminded his team that this match was not about Henry's return to Arsenal or Cesc Fabregas playing against the club that nurtured him and would like him back.
Wenger would also rather his team were not affected by the occasion, and dismissed any notion that they could be overawed by the reigning champions of Europe.
"Henry comes back? Frankly he has come back already many times to Arsenal," Wenger said. "He had a fantastic time at Arsenal and we are forever grateful, but on the night do you think really we will be focused on how Thierry will feel? We will be focused on our game. (To feel any different) will be disrespectful.
"Personality is part of it but it's not the main thing of it. What people sell now in the game is the artificial part of it, but it's not the main thing in the game.
"The main part is the quality of the game you can see on the day and will not see maybe for 10 years. Maybe it will be a crap game, nobody knows; but that is what will be interesting."
This was classically grumpy Wenger, clearly fed up with the attention lavished on the recent return of David Beckham to Manchester United and Jose Mourinho to Chelsea. He was in no mood for a similar episode.
Beckham notably never got the tribute he craved from Alex Ferguson before Milan's game against United in the previous round and Henry looks destined to the same fate from his old manager. "It's not a personal game, it's a team game," Wenger said. "It's like the other day with Chelsea and Inter. You get fed up with all these stories (about Mourinho).
"Let's see a football game. It bothers me because it is a dictatorship to tell people what is important. And what you tell them is important is not important. It is football that is important.
"What was beautiful in the Chelsea game against Inter was the control of (Wesley) Sneijder and the goal of Samuel Eto'o. That is really difficult to do. Nobody talks about that. It was all this other fuss I get fed up with because it's not football. What is beautiful in this game was the goal Inter scored. All the rest is rubbish."
Wenger might be exasperated but the Champions League, with virtually the same old clubs in contention every year, is much the richer for those famous individuals and their personal odysseys. He would be entitled to be resentful of another more favourable draw for Manchester United, who face Bayern Munich in the quarter-final and then the winner of Lyon and Bordeaux in the semi-final.
Not only will Arsenal have to beat Barcelona but to reach the final against possibly United they will also have to beat the winner of Inter and CSKA Moscow in the semi-final.
Their game against Barcelona is easily the humdinger of the round; not just for Henry, nor Fabregas measuring up against his old youth team amigo Lionel Messi. It is also a re-run of the 2006 Champions League final, when Wenger's plans were turned upside down in the 20th minute by the debatable dismissal of goalkeeper Jens Lehmann.
That night in Paris still hurts Wenger, who talks about the Norwegian referee Terje Hauge's decision as if the game only finished half an hour ago. "When a referee makes a decision like that he has to be absolutely sure," Wenger said.
"You do not kill a final that one billion people watch if it's not certain. UEFA always gets referees from the 'no-leagues' to take charge of massive games.
"They are not used to the tricks and the pace of countries like England and Spain. We had a fantastic season in the Champions League; we only lost one game and that was the final, in the whole season. The game was not there. With 11 against 11, it would have been a fantastic game. We had to take Robert Pires off (for Manuel Almunia). He still hates me today."
The received wisdom is that Wenger fundamentally changed his tactical approach to 4-3-3 in the summer on the basis of the success enjoyed by Barcelona playing that system last season.
Not so, says the man himself, who was anxious to point out was that he was playing 4-3-3 when Barcelona's coach Pep Guardiola was still in the Barcelona youth team.
"I played 4-3-3 before Barcelona," Wenger said. "I played 4-3-3 at Monaco (1987-1994). Barcelona did not create that system. That system is a Dutch system. (Johan) Cruyff exported that system. The Dutch used it at the 1974 World Cup.
"I thought it was more suited to the quality of our players. It suits Fabregas, it allows Robin van Persie to play in a free role up front and because we have so many versatile players, we are not made for a strict 4-4-2. It gives us more freedom to be creative."
He would at least concede that Barcelona against Arsenal means a chance to compare Fabregas and Messi, two players who could have been playing on the same side had Wenger not convinced the former that his career was better served moving to London.
Wenger, whose team face West Ham in the Premier League at the Emirates today, said that "you never forget completely about a game you lose" and no defeat in Arsenal's history was as big as that one in Paris on May 17, 2006.
Funnily enough, he has also not forgotten what he described yesterday as "Thierry's two good chances" that night. But he was not about to dwell on it.
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