Wenger wants to go for win
Arsenal (1) v Villarreal (1): ARSENE WENGER maintains his Arsenal team cannot and will not play for a 0-0 draw, a scoreline which would suffice to see off Villarreal at the Emirates Stadium tonight and smooth safe passage into the Champions League semi-finals.
Previous experience of such tumultuous occasions, though, reminds the manager of the chasm that exists between best intentions and practice.
“We won 1-0 away to Real Madrid [in the last 16 in 2006] and we drew 0-0 at home but we did not play for that and it was a very competitive game,” he said. “Of course, after 80 minutes, if it is 0-0, you can say what you want to your players and they will just stay back. At Villarreal [in the semi-final that season], it was even worse. We’d won 1-0 at home and at half-time in the second leg, I encouraged them to play. They said ‘No chance’.”
Wenger can smile because his players edged through, despite seeming to be paralysed by the occasion. Jens Lehmann’s 90th-minute penalty save ensured the scoreline stayed blank and Arsenal advanced to the final against Barcelona. Wenger admitted he would sign up for a repeat of that result – progress, he acknowledged, was the bottom line – but he knew his players’ chances would only be improved if he could win the psychological battle with them and encourage them on to the front foot.
Villarreal, so menacing in the first-half of the first leg that ended 1-1, have been buoyed by the injury crisis in Arsenal’s defence. Wenger has had only six established players in the department to call upon at the best of times this season but with three of them out – central defenders William Gallas and Johan Djourou and the full-back Gael Clichy – he will be forced to start the erratic Mikael Silvestre in the middle and 19-year-old rookie Kieran Gibbs on the left. Lukasz Fabianski deputises for the injured regular goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia. Sitting back would surely be an invitation for trouble.
“We want to go into the game with a positive attitude and we will try to win,” said Wenger. “It is very dangerous to play for 0-0. I saw Panathinaikos versus Villarreal in the last round and [after a 1-1 first-leg draw in Spain], Panathinaikos played [for] a 0-0. Villarreal won 2-1 on the night. If you start and you do not want to play, then if you do have to play, it is difficult to get into that mode, to switch it on. The second leg of the semi-final in 2006 was our most restricted performance of the season. We refused to play as long as we were qualified. It is subconscious.”
Wenger’s other selection decision concerns Robin van Persie, who is struggling with a groin problem. The Dutch striker will undergo a fitness test, but the indications yesterday were he would be short and was more likely to be among the substitutes. That would see Cesc Fabregas given the central role in a 4-2-3-1 formation, in front of Denilson and Alex Song. Villarreal are missing midfield stars Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla.
Gibbs’s full European debut is an intriguing sub-plot, particularly if Robert Pires, the former Arsenal winger, gets to take him on. Pires was a 70th-minute substitute in the first leg and it was put to Wenger the 35-year-old possessed the experience to make it an education for Gibbs. “It will be for Pires as well,” replied Wenger. “I trust Gibbs because he is an intelligent boy. This is when you are happy that you play these boys in the League Cup. When we played at Wigan on Saturday, Gibbs had already played against [Antonio] Valencia in the League Cup.”
Arsenal will start as favourites. They are on an 18-game unbeaten run in the Premier League and Wenger saluted the resilience of his players. “When we lost five [Premier League] games in the first 14, you could not predict that we would not lose at all afterwards,” he said. “The players’ mental strength has been a positive surprise. Now we have another chance to show that we can deal with this kind of game.”