Pleasant Madrid memories give Wenger reason to believe
Arsenal boss cites great win over Real in 2006 as his side face a huge test at Atlético
Arsène Wenger: “The next game is always the most important in life and this one influences the future of my club.” Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty
Arséne Wenger went back to Madrid – in his own mind – when he was asked last week to reveal his most memorable European result with Arsenal.
It came in February 2006, the manager said, in the Champions League last-16 first leg, when his team outplayed a Real Madrid line-up that featured Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos and the Brazilian Ronaldo to win 1-0.
Thierry Henry scored the goal and it was the first time that an English side had beaten Real on their own ground. Arsenal completed the job with a 0-0 draw at Highbury and they advanced to the final, where they lost 2-1 to Barcelona – the greatest regret of Wenger’s near 22-year tenure.
The Frenchman’s critics will note that it says a good deal about him that he has to retreat so far to find an authentic moment of greatness. It is one of the reasons why his time at the club is almost up.
But what the Arsenal manager would give for a repeat of the scoreline on Thursday night in a different part of the Spanish capital; the delight of upsetting the odds.
Before the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid – the first match finished 1-1 – it is clear that Wenger will need a similarly thrusting performance and if his team do prevail, the result would be comparable with the one against Real.
It would also stand the test of time because Diego Simeone’s Atlético side are such a fiendish proposition, even if the manager is banned from the touchline after his sending-off in the first leg.
Arsenal have to score but their opponents have conceded only nine in 26 matches in all competitions at the Wanda Metropolitano, where they moved this season. They have also kept clean sheets in the previous 11 home games.
“In history Costa has shown he can make differences,” Wenger said, with one of those rueful half-smiles.
Arsenal’s fragility has been a talking point and it has been exemplified by their away form in 2018. They have lost seven and drawn one of their eight domestic away games, including an FA Cup third-round tie at Nottingham Forest, although they have roused themselves on their Europa League travels. They have to show overdue steel here.
Wenger wants no more regrets and it will be a defining occasion on several levels. The 68-year-old’s desire to bow out from Arsenal with the first European trophy of his career is a compelling storyline and he offered the juiciest soundbite when he warmed to the theme.
“I want to finish this love story well,” he said.
Yet the club, who do actually pre-date Wenger, are hardly well-stocked with European honours. They have only two – the 1970 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup. Above all, it is a huge opportunity for them and that is before a potential Champions League qualification place is considered.
Were Arsenal to triumph against Marseille or Red Bull Salzburg in the Lyon final on May 16th, they would return to Europe’s elite competition.
“The next game is always the most important in life and this one influences the future of my club,” Wenger said. “The future of Arsenal is not exactly the same if we qualify for the Champions League or not. That’s why it’s a very, very big game for us.”
Wenger has made it plain that he is not yet ready to retire; he will seek another job in management next season and it sounded a little pointed when he insisted, “I don’t feel too much my age”.
One of the subplots puts him in the managerial shop window, not to mention the desire this fighter has to prove that, perhaps, Arsenal would have been better off to keep him. What of the players? Some of them, surely, are playing for their futures at the club.
Wenger admitted to a mixture of nerves and excitement. There was still the same buzz, he said, that had accompanied the first games of his long Arsenal tenure.
“There is uncertainly [about the result] and that creates a tension,” he added. “You can always discover new things in football. Every game is a new adventure. That’s why the excitement is the same.”
How his players balance the requirements of the tie will be fundamental.
“We know exactly what we need to do and that is an advantage,” he added. “We need to score and to have a clear approach in our heads. The only thing we don’t know is will Atlético do the same or have a more cautious approach and try to catch us on the break? Atlético’s history [of clean sheets at home] has to stop somewhere. We created chances in the first leg and we have to recreate those situations.”
What Wenger most wants is to recreate is the feeling from Madrid 2006. This is his first return to the city with Arsenal for what will be his 250th European match; he sits second on the all-time list behind Alex Ferguson.
“We come to a place with a good history for us,” the Frenchman added. “We came here with a very young team and beat Real Madrid, who had fantastic names. I will try to repeat that.”