It’s do or die now for Wenger

Say hello and wave goodbye to winners?

It’s do or die now for Wenger

At 5pm this evening, the final chapter will be written in the story of one of the greatest teams. At the same time, the end of an inglorious tale is in sight. Arsenal may well be back in a winners enclosure.

Barcelona will give thanks, and move on, if they win another La Liga title by beating Atletico this evening. There is no open-top-bus parade planned. Coach Tata Martino will go regardless.

When they last scooped a consolation prize in 2005, Arsenal didn’t bother with the parade either. This time the bus is booked and the lap of honour routed.

But the driver is shame as much as glory. Google ‘trophy drought’. 420,000 results, at last check. The first three pages of listings are all Arsenal. Maybe all 420,000 are Arsenal.

Of course Jose Mourinho introduced fresh terminology to the mix. “Specialist in failure.” 1,560,000 results. Maybe they are all about Arsene Wenger.

It has ensured at least one of tonight’s stories is about the manager. Winning a title might mean the world to Martino, but won’t cause a reassessment of his spell at Barcelona. Winning the cup has never preoccupied Wenger, but losing this evening would diminish him.

Barcelona’s players can’t lose anything. As they say goodbye to Valdes, Alves and Puyol and continue to mourn Tito, a magnificent group can only embellish their legacy by winning one more time on a playing field levelled by their own decline.

It would be Pete Sampras managing one more triumph over Agassi in 2002. “I was searching for those last bits of greatness in me.”

Martino can say what he likes now and he put it beautifully this week: “This would be a first title for this team as normal people, suffering, fighting. Other titles were those of extraterrestrials.”

In recent times, the team they called Barcelona-lite have fielded many normal people. This week, Wenger rejected the idea his team had a ‘mental block’. Before their last big opportunity to buck the narrative against Birmingham three years ago, he claimed a win would complete a “mental unblocking”.

Perhaps he just realised they were deluding themselves. And there was only so much you could put down to psychology. Or perhaps he doesn’t know how to unblock them.

In many of their biggest games, their biggest flops, since 2005, Arsenal have simply not been good enough. In others, they seem to lack clarity of purpose. Birmingham, in that 2011 ignominy, were the stronger, more confident side from the start.

Why? We are not paying much attention to Hull’s role in this evening’s proceedings, and you wonder will Wenger. As Tony Adams recalled of the 1998 FA Cup win, Wenger’s first. “Not once had we discussed Newcastle. We were confident enough that if we played well, we wouldn’t need to worry about them.”

It is a policy that has persisted. Before he left for Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas admitted: “At Arsenal we don’t really look at anything from the other team, we look at ourselves and that’s it.”

His eyes would soon open. As Xavi put it, during Barca’s pomp: “Little details matter a lot now and, psychologically we are undergoing a Masters degree with Pep. Everything is controlled and well prepared. We spend a lot of time on strategy, tactics and how the opponent is going to play against us. We are loving this.”

As great as the Barcelona players are, they have struggled without the focus Pep gave them. Without his great players, Wenger has struggled to give his team focus.

This week, the narrative was familiar. “You can win and lose but you want to come out of the game feeling you have done the maximum to win and that is what we want to achieve.”

Arsene just wants a performance and then take it from there. But as Fabregas put it, after the Birmingham flop: “I imagine there will be a moment when you have to decide; do you win things or not?” It’s time.

England playing the long game

The week brought lows for some high-maintenance footballers, notably Samir Nasri. It takes a strong record of petulance to be left out of a World Cup squad on personality alone, particularly one that includes Patrice Evra.

Other members of the more-trouble-than-he’s-worth brigade included Argentina’s Carlos Tevez and Italy’s Pablo Osvaldo, while Fabio Capello talked himself out of one last shot at coaxing Andrei Arshavin into running around.

Some would fit Ashley Cole in the same bracket. However much Roy Hodgson praised his graceful reaction to rejection; Cole’s immediate retirement, before even the squad announcement, suggests he mightn’t have been great company as backup in Brazil.

Still, he remains among the lowest-maintenance footballers England have, on his on-pitch work. Ordinarily, you’d detect a little of the old England hubris, if they feel they can do without one of the few men they have proven at this kind of level.

Yet, you suspect something else cost Cole this time round. In preferring young Luke Shaw, Roy is reminding us this one is about the future. And reminding us the big plan is not to win it until 2022.

Official calls must be fair for all

The people from the European Tour have been making the trip from Wentworth to Cork a fair bit lately, to prepare for the Irish Open — in Fota Island next month.

Among a stable of administrators, there is a championship director, Antonia Beggs, who will organise everything that happens outside the ropes; and a tournament director, Miguel Vidaor, who makes the call on everything inside.

These people pride themselves on contingency planning. On running a tight ship. On knowing what to do if something goes wrong.

When I talked to Beggs, it was a few days after there wasn’t enough water for the runners of the Sheffield Half Marathon. The kind of disaster that couldn’t happen on her watch, she assured. There is a 300-page manual with a policy on every eventuality. Lightning, flooding, a car crash on the road outside — all covered.

At the Madeira Open last week, tournament director Jose Maria Zamora knew what to do when fog descended. He shortened the event to 36 holes. But when tragedy struck, the death on the course of caddy Iain McGregor, there didn’t seem to be a plan. Unless the plan, in these situations, is to ring Tour chief executive George O’Grady.

Back in Wentworth, George made the call to play on, a call that has attracted much criticism since. Maybe the policy will now change. Whatever the plan, you trust the process would be the same for a high-profile player as a relatively unknown caddy.

Heroes & villains


Manuel Pellegrini: Except when he wears the hoodie, the suave Chilean usually has the air of a man lounging on the deck of a round-the-world cruise. Deserves one now he has his reward for a season of dignified touchline restraint.


The FA: The England brass band are travelling to Brazil despite a World Cup ban on musical instruments. Now the FA is canvassing organisers to allow trumpets into England’s matches. Still no great escape from this racket.

Anare Atanes: The ‘colourful’ Twitter reaction of Nasri’s girlfriend — who may or may not have left her phone lying around the house — suggests Didier Deschamps might have a point about Nasri’s unsuitability to being a sub.

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