Thursday 21 November 2019

Winning run fires Gunners' belief for Mission Impossible

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

Jeremy Wilson

Arsene Wenger called his players many things after the earthquake of a 3-1 Champions League defeat by Monaco at the Emirates Stadium three weeks ago.

The Arsenal manager said they were "naive" and suicidal". He felt that they had let their hearts rule their heads. He also admitted that they had lost both their "nerve" and "rationality".

What Wenger has firmly rejected since, however, is any suggestion that Arsenal somehow lacked desire.

It was surprising, then, to hear Per Mertesacker offer what felt like a rather different perspective upon the team's arrival on the French Riviera for the second leg tonight.

"We know that first leg we weren't really up for it mentally," the German defender said. "From the start you could feel that and, at times, we could feel that there was a bit of a pressure and we couldn't cope with that."

The big caveat, of course, is in how Arsenal have since responded. Four straight wins have ensured that their season will be far from finished even if they do fail to become the first club in Champions League history to reverse such a heavy home defeat in the first leg.

An FA Cup semi-final still awaits at Wembley and, according to Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, Arsenal are also again legitimate Premier League title contenders.

Both Mertesacker and Wenger seemed uncertain last night how to treat Mourinho's supposed compliment but what they did both stress was how the team had recovered since the first leg.

It is this, allied to a wider run of 12 wins in 14 matches, that has given the squad tangible belief for what might seem like a hopeless cause.

Mertesacker claimed that the players had learnt the lessons of being so exposed on the counter-attack following a team meeting.

"We are coming out of a great week with two important wins," he said. "We have a good level of confidence. We have to face the truth, we have to show a different face but you need to embrace the challenge.


"We moved on after that game and improved a lot. That is why we are very confident that, even away from home, we can beat any team in the world."

As well as the defensive frailties, most fingers of blame were pointed in the specific direction of Olivier Giroud after the first game. He missed a series of chances before being substituted to cheers from many Arsenal fans but has since scored three goals in three starts.

"Olivier owes a revenge to himself - a great performance for himself," Wenger said.

"What striker does not miss an opportunity? He has the ability of a top international striker and the right mental attitude. He is in better condition. He got over the disappointment of the first leg and will do everything to be at the top level."

The wider narrative tonight will be Wenger's own personal return to the Stade Louis II for his first competitive match since being sacked in 1994.

He is actually the longest serving manager in the history of Monaco as well as Arsenal, delivering a French league title and domestic cup as well as a European final and Champions League semi-final during his seven years on the Cote d'Azur.

Monaco's already miserly defence - they have conceded just two goals in seven Champions League games - will be further boosted by the return of former Chelsea centre-back Ricardo Carvalho.

The odds are certainly stacked against Arsenal and Wenger was asked yesterday if he ever visited the casinos during his time in Monaco.

The reply, unsurprisingly, was in the negative and only the most optimistic Arsenal fan will be putting everything on the reds tonight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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