Saturday 20 January 2018

Wenger knows this may be his last chance to break hoodoo

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger under-fire after Bayern Munich hammering
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger under-fire after Bayern Munich hammering

Jeremy Wilson

Arsene Wenger will tonight manage for the 183th time in the Champions League and the question that is lingering unmistakeably over this tie is whether Bayern Munich will be his last opponent in the competition he most craves to win.

Defeat against an authentic European superpower might in isolation not sound like a resigning offence but the wider context of six straight defeats at this stage of the tournament and Chelsea's Premier League dominance could conceivably make it the final straw.

"This is not a topic or issue for today," said Wenger, bluntly, upon being asked the now-obligatory question about his future; but he will know that a capacity to deliver at this most level of competition is what fans now must doubt.

It is an opportunity, then, as well as a threat and perhaps now the only chance this season to demonstrate that he still is the man to guide Arsenal through their recent ceiling of relentless top-four finishes.

Wenger sounded irritated when Arsenal's recent Champions League knockout record was raised and, while he is at the point where only results rather than words will convince critics, he was adamant that his team are now better equipped. "Thank you for reminding me of the bad history but let's focus on the future," said Wenger.

But are his team now stronger than when Bayern eliminated them in 2013 and 2014? "I feel we have experience," he said. "We just have to focus on the performance. We know we play against Bayern who basically, listening to you, is favourite. That means we have to be very positive and, on the fighting and playing front, at the level that is requested."

One question is whether Wenger will organise his team differently in an attempt to meet that level. His stated concern at the form of Mesut Ozil has prompted a suspicion that he might at least redeploy his playmaker away from the usual No 10 role in order to solidify the team.

It was certainly instructive to hear how the Bayern players are expecting yet another open game. "Arsenal is a team who want to play," said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. "We will get more space. We're a team who like to circulate the ball and take advantage of these spaces. That's why I think for the fans it will be nice to watch."

Neuer's reference here was Ingolstadt, against whom they laboured to a 2-0 win on Saturday in the Bundesliga. These quotes were put to Wenger with the observation that they could be taken as much as a criticism as a compliment. Easy to play against perhaps?

"We want to play attractive and efficient football and I don't think that is a bad target personally," said Wenger. "Bayern will have a lot of the ball but we have to play to be efficient defensively and with a desire to hurt them every time we can.

"We have gone through the group stage and not lost a game yet. We had very difficult teams in our group stage; we had Paris St-Germain and we could deal with them, who are one of the favourites as well.

"Bayern, as usual, will try to dominate the match playing with lots of possession. When you look at their record, they are always basically in the last four. It is a massive challenge but we are capable of dealing with it."

In that regard, there were generous words from Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian stands with Wenger and Alex Ferguson among the three most experienced managers in Champions League history.

"Wenger knows that in our job it is normal to be criticised," he said. "He built a strong identity, a really good style of football. I have a lot of respect for this job. Arsenal can play fantastic football when they are comfortable on the pitch. We have to be able to make them feel uncomfortable."

Again, it was possible to spot an implied criticism here. Can Arsenal emerge unscathed in matches when they do not feel comfortable? They did against Paris St-Germain largely thanks to goalkeeper David Ospina and Wenger confirmed that he would play the Colombian tonight ahead of Petr Cech.

Ospina has certainly served him well so far this season, but to exclude a former Champions League winner in Cech remains a huge decision.

"It will be Ospina because of the quality of his performances," said Wenger. "We are where we are basically down to his great performances."

Wenger was slightly more cautious about guaranteeing Ozil's place although few really expect him to be dropped. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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