Four years ago Arsenal faced Barcelona in the Champions League final, a game that was billed before as having the potential to be the match of the decade.
In one corner was the best footballing side in the world, containing possibly the world’s best player in Ronaldinho. In the other was Arsene Wenger’s latest masterwork, a team of kids – containing the emerging Cesc Fabregas and led by Thierry Henry – who had announced themselves to Europe with outstanding victories against Real Madrid and Fabio Capello’s Juventus.
It was meant to be a match-up that displayed everything stunning about the beautiful game, between the two most expansive and attractive teams in the world. Yet the neutrals were to be denied their spectacle when, after a thrilling first 15 minutes, Jens Lehmann was sent for an early shower and, despite taking the lead shortly after, Arsenal were forced to sit back as Barcelona attacked their resilient defence. The game was decided not with the skill of Ronaldinho or Henry, but instead by the intervention of Henrik Larsson, representing not the bright future of football but instead the dependability of experience.
Back then it seemed as if Wenger was on the verge of realising his finest achievement of all, a team that would dominate Europe whilst playing his unique brand of football – both easy on the eye and devastatingly effective – but, four years later and as the two sides meet in Europe again, it is instead Pep Guardiola at Barcelona who has achieved this goal. Wenger meanwhile has endured his longest stretch without silverware as Arsenal manager.
His critics argue that his transitional period has gone on for too long now and it is certainly difficult to see many other top European clubs being as patient with their manager. Yet even as Arsenal show signs of slipping out of the title race for a seventh year running, Wenger is still lauded as a genius throughout the continent and Arsenal fans show no real sign of losing patience in their leader anytime soon.
Why? Simply, it is because Wenger appears to strive for something more than just success and silverware. It is his stubborn belief that football should be played in its purest form, reminiscent of the great Brazilian and Dutch sides of the seventies, and he will arrogantly encourage this way of playing regardless of its suitability against the physical teams of the Premier League. And despite the lack of trophies, he has had reasonable success in moulding a side that at times plays in this way – their 5-0 win over Porto in the previous round being an example – an achievement that makes most Arsenal fans hugely proud to support their team.
Yet the high ground that Wenger feels he inhabits is disappearing beneath his feet, and there is a sense that the view of Arsenal as football’s saviours is fast becoming outdated. Recent losses to Manchester United in Europe and the Premier League showed Arsenal to be a team that, despite being able to keep possession outstandingly, lack the potency of great expansive football sides. Earlier this year Wayne Rooney and an exceptional Nani tore Arsenal apart in a sublime display of counter-attacking football. It could be said that they were out Arsenal-ed, but in reality Arsenal have not played that clinically against one of their main Premier League rivals in several years.
The return of Henry to North London will remind Wenger that he has never been able to fully replace his greatest asset. Adebayor showed early promise before spectacularly falling out with the club and Van Persie undoubtedly has the talent but not the injury record. Eduardo and Bendtner might still emerge but show little signs of emulating the majesty of the Frenchman in his prime. Wenger must be beginning to realise that until his side have world-class finishers they have no business claiming to be flag-bearers for Total Football.
Against Barcelona Wenger will face a team that have mastered the art of football whilst showing that it can be perfected to gain silverware. Guardiola’s masterpiece combines the brilliance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta with a spine containing the physicality of players such as Yaya Toure and Puyol – something which Arsenal so obviously lack. Barcelona will play Arsenal how Wenger likes sides to play against them leaving him with no excuses to hide behind if it all goes wrong. If Arsenal are humbled – as many think they will be – there will be no possible conclusion to draw other than that Wenger’s team are a long way from being the true artists of football and that he has therefore failed in his grand scheme.
Of course there is another possibility. Perhaps no manager has such a firm belief in the ability of his players as Arsene Wenger. His side will undoubtedly play their usual fast-paced on-the-deck attacking football against Barcelona – they know no other way to play and Wenger would expect nothing less. Last year Manchester United attempted to do just that against Barça in Rome and watched as Xavi and Iniesta gave them a lesson in ball retention for 90 minutes. If Arsenal were to do what United could not, and out-football the most magnificent team of this generation over two legs, then Wenger would again be able to claim that, if nothing else, he has succeeded in his goal to create a football team that are able to play the beautiful game in its purest form.
It would not assure them the league title or even success in Europe, it would probably not even answer all of Arsenal’s critics, but it would be Wenger’s way of showing to the world that he has at least managed to create something beautiful. Who knows, we might even get that ‘match of the decade’ after all.