ARSENE WENGER has admitted his failure to prepare his young team for the rigours of this season has cost them dearly.
Wenger says he “probably underestimated” how the negative effects the team’s capitulation at the end of last season would affect his young Gunners.
But ahead of their Champions League quarter-final second leg against Villarreal at the Emirates tomorrow night — with the tie delicately poised at 1-1 — the Frenchman is confident the club have turned the corner.
“We have been unbeaten for 17 games which means we lost five during our first 14 games of the season. No one can have any hopes of winning the league with such a poor start,” Wenger said.
“I got it wrong as I probably underestimated the negative effects of last season when we lost the title in the last few games. Hleb and Flamini have left the club. The Adebayor incident, who was leaving the club one minute and staying the next. This has also played a major part in our poor start. But, we also had defensive problems.
“I admit that at some point in time, you become a prisoner of your own policy. I cannot say I believe in Song, Diaby and Denilson and buy three players to replace them. At some point, playing youngsters will cost you some points. You have to accept it.”
Wenger is relishing tomorrow night’s test from the dangerous Spaniards, declaring he loves the pressure of the Champions League build-up. “I love that personally,” he said. “There is always big tension at these times and we want to deal well with it. This is a big chance in front of us.”
Wenger pinpointed the moment when his young squad “grew up” this season.
Wenger’s team have rallied since their slow start and are unbeaten in 18 top-flight games.
“When did they grow up? There are different moments,” said Wenger.
“After our defeat at Man City we went to Chelsea and won. We played 2-2, 0-0 at home and still got a lot of negative publicity but still kept going.
“There was another decisive factor in Rome; when you miss your first penalty and come up against Totti, Baptista, Montella and Vucinic still to take a penalty with Pizarro. You know, you are away from home against penalty specialists.
“You have only kids to take your penalties but still manage to win. You need mental strength and I believe it was a turning point in the belief of the team. When you think about it, the average age is only 21.
“Before this game in Rome, our football wasn’t convincing. Since Rome, we are once again scoring goals and our game has come back to us.”
Emmanuel Adebayor’s crucial away goal at El Madrigal last week has put the Gunners in the driving seat. Any win, or a goalless draw, at Emirates Stadium will see them progress.
However, Wenger is adamant that his side must be “decisive” against a Villarreal side who will come to attack.
“We know we are in a situation where we don’t want to be tentative at all,” Wenger said.
“I don’t believe that we are a team who can play for 0-0, that’s not our natural way.”
Wenger believes the long, enforced rest of Cesc Fabregas will help him finish the season strongly. Wenger feels he is not only fresh but getting back to full strength as well. “He was fantastic,” said Wenger at Wigan on Saturday. “He looks to get stronger and stronger from game to game.”
Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini named midfield duo Cani and Mati Fernandez in a 20-man squad to travel to London.
Both missed Saturday’s 2-0 league defeat to Malaga through injury.
Also named in the squad is teenage midfielder Jordi Pablo but the Yellow Submarine must do without Spain internationals Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla.
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