Monday, May 17, 2004
By Mark Bradley
ARSENE WENGER has insisted he would not swap Arsenal’s "unique" unbeaten league record for even the Champions League trophy.
The Gunners manger has admitted that not even he had truly believed his side could complete an entire 38-match campaign undefeated.
Wenger still had the last laugh on those who mocked him last season when he set his team exactly that target, comparing him to the former Iraqi Minister of Information.
"Somebody threw me a T-shirt after the trophy was presented which read 'Comical Wenger says we can go the whole season unbeaten'," he said.
"I was just a season too early. But seriously, at the beginning of this season, I never felt that we were capable of doing it. Nobody spoke of us and I knew Chelsea had bought many players, while Manchester United had also strengthened their side. I never expected us to do it."
After a battling 2-1 win against Leicester, the club's incredible record nevertheless read: Played 38, won 26, drawn 12, lost 0.
That, in Wenger's mind, meant even more than lifting the greatest prize in European club football.
"Every year, there is a team that wins the Champions League but it is not every year a team sets a record like that," he said.
"This is something unique, especially in a difficult championship in England. So would I swap it for the Champions League? No really.
"This is something special, something amazing. We can all try to be better but, to do it again, would be really difficult."
The Champions League is nevertheless now, more than ever, the one unfulfilled goal at Highbury.
Wenger said: "The overall achievement of the club this season has been tremendous but we are missing, of course, the fact that we want to win the Champions League.
"But we don't want to make an obsession of it as, the more you do that, the less likely you are to win it. I hope the players won't get a mental block about Europe. It's just important to do well in your own championship first. If you look at the eight teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, seven of them were in the top two of their leagues, while Deportivo were third. What I would love to do is to do this and the Champions League together."
Wenger noted the underlying irony in the fact Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League this season by Chelsea, a club they had not lost to in 17 previous encounters.
"We weren't knocked out by Juventus or AC Milan, but by Chelsea and we know we can beat Chelsea, we know they are not a better side than us. So I believe we are not far away. Just before we lost to Chelsea, we had won five European Cup games on the trot."
Wenger nevertheless believes English teams are not properly protected in Europe by the fixture list, meaning the FA Cup could be compromised next season. "I don't want to look for excuses and it's not all of the explanation but it's part of it. If we are in the same situation again, we will have to make a choice," he said.
Defending the league title successfully for the first time since Herbert Chapman's famous side of the 1930s remains the other challenge for next season. "That's a good target to have," Wenger said.