Wenger keen to avoid stressful playoff with Old Trafford success

Arsenal have faced Champions League playoff in seven of last nine seasons

At Arsenal, and on more occasions than Arsene Wenger would care to remember, it has been a focal point for early-season stress, the elephant in the dressingroom, stomping around, spreading unease: the club have contested the Champions League playoff in seven of the past nine seasons and, although they have always advanced into the group phase, it is difficult to quantify just how much it has sapped the squad, both mentally and physically.

Wenger had a try on Friday. The manager talked of the tension and the pressure, of the dire consequences of failure that can nag away at the players and how it could not fail to have a bearing on the team’s desire to make a fast start in the Premier League.

Udinese 2011 is the one that sticks in Wenger’s mind. He remembers the stifling heat in Italy and, more than anything, the relief after Arsenal had squeaked home. The payback would come four days later. Arsenal went to Manchester United in the league and were walloped 8-2.

Back story

Wenger goes back to Old Trafford on Sunday and the Champions League playoff forms the back story. Arsenal are eager to dodge it for a change and they would do so with a win. A draw, too, would be a positive result for Wenger’s team and even a defeat ought not to derail them.


“It’s very important for your season preparations not to have that kind of stress of the playoff over your head from the first day you start again,” he said. “We know what it means and we know it’s always tricky, because you can play against teams who are in the middle of their championship when you are in preparation.

“It is the pressure and the consequences of not qualifying that are massive. Every day in practice you have to focus on thinking you have to be ready on that day. When you qualify at Udinese, it is a relief but days later you go to Old Trafford to get exactly the same focus. You know you have more chance to lose the game than to win it, so sometimes you pay the price in the Premier League.”

Wenger said that a playoff – and the uncertainty over whether the club would make the Champions League group phase – could affect the incoming transfer deals. “It is difficult,” he said. “They think that most of the time you’re playing in the Champions League but you’re not sure.”

There is also the issue of players who may be involved in the Copa América and not be fully up to speed by August. Wenger stands to have three players in Chile for the tournament which kicks off on June 11th – Alexis Sanchez (the hosts), David Ospina (Colombia) and Gabriel Paulista (Brazil). The final is on July 4th and Wenger always likes to give his players at least a four-week break.

Community Shield

If Arsenal win the

FA Cup

, they will play the Community Shield on August 2nd. The new league season begins on August 8th, with the first leg of the Champions League playoff scheduled for August 18th or 19th. “What is even more important now is that the international competitions force you most of the time to start the new season without your players. You cannot give them a long enough rest when they have played international games.”

Wenger expects United to spend heavily again this summer. “It looks to be that United are on the market,” he said. “Every player I’m offered they are in for.”

But Wenger was more concerned with following up March’s FA Cup win at Old Trafford with another “symbolic statement”. “To reproduce that would be psychologically important,” he said.

“It would convince us more that we have made progress and can be even stronger next season.” Guardian Service