The admission was volunteered unsolicited after a question more focused on the calibre of prospective rival in the knockout phase.
Arsenal may not have lost a game in any competition since the opening weekend of the season but, as Arsène Wenger suggested, they have been “a bit stuttering recently”. They confront Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday in a match which may determine who wins Group A but, with a tricky draw ahead whatever happens next, the real significance of a victory would be psychological.
The frustration stems from recent rather stodgy displays. Wenger might have reflected on a home draw with Middlesbrough or a suspect opening against Ludogorets in Sofia, but cited instead an inability to build on a first-half lead against Tottenham Hotspur before the international break. Then there was the rather sluggish display at Manchester United on Saturday when even a very late equaliser did not paper over the cracks.
“We had created a momentum [up to the beginning of November] but we have been a bit stuttering recently because we have not been winning games,” the manager said, well aware as he is of Arsenal’s tendency to lull at this time of year. “We want to build that momentum up again. We need to show we can win against a big team, so it’s more important for us to do the job. It would send out a statement.”
Eclipsing PSG, a club who count themselves as contenders on this stage even if they are in transition and playing catch‑up back in Ligue 1, would serve that purpose. Arsenal will remember the scorching to which they were subjected at the Parc des Princes in September, when Edinson Cavani scored inside the opening minute before, rather perplexingly, indecision choked the Uruguayan’s approach and he produced a quartet of dismal misses. David Ospina was outstanding in the Arsenal goal that night, but he should not have been given a chance, so clear were some of the opportunities. Alexis Sánchez’s equaliser was pilfered with glee largely because the point claimed seemed so unlikely.
Yet Arsenal, having swatted away each opponent in turn since, will win the group for the first time in five seasons if PSG are beaten. Wenger was undecided as to whether that would make life any easier in the new year – they had gone on to lose to Milan in the knockout back in 2012 – and a glance at the respective group tables reveals Bayern Munich, Juventus or Real Madrid may all still await in the last 16.
Given they have not progressed past that stage in six seasons, losing twice against Barcelona and twice against Bayern in that time, there is cause for trepidation as to what the draw will bring.
“I read that Real are not sure whether it’s good to finish first or second,” Wenger said. “The other groups might look at ours and think: ‘PSG or Arsenal, who is better?’ The problem is that, if you finish second and get a bad draw, everybody says: ‘That’s your own fault.’ So, knowing that, you want to finish first. Is there an actual difference? I don’t know. But, Monaco aside [in 2015], we have had difficult draws, and we failed against Monaco, which is why I’ll never forget that. But I feel guilty when we finish second and have a difficult tie.
“Let’s finish first and at least we have the advantage to play the second game at home. If we do win it, it would mean we’ve done the job until the end in a convincing way. It’s a luxury to be qualified after four games. Last year we had to battle until the end. This season we can finish the whole job after five matches, which would mean we’ve done really well. So it is a cup final.” It is one where he will be denied the injured Héctor Bellerín and Santi Cazorla – the latter unavailable potentially for a further month – but Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, who missed training with minor toe complaints, should be available.
The hope is Arsenal can seize the initiative against a PSG team who trail Nice by three points, are troubled by doubts over Ángel Di María’s fitness after he twinged a hamstring against Nantes, and are without Serge Aurier, who has been refused a visa into the country. The Ivorian can be inconsistent, but it should not be forgotten that he was PSG’s stellar performer in Paris two months ago.
His absence would constitute a blow for Unai Emery, though Wenger is concentrating more on his own team’s strengths. “I think we are,” the manager replied when asked whether his team are better placed to compete for the Champions League than in recent seasons. “But we want to show we can beat any style of team. We are playing a team who play slow possession football and then, suddenly, they play quickly with Cavani, Lucas Moura … they can accelerate a game.
“We have to show we can deal with that different style to what we are used to. In England, we always play with power.” They may need subtlety to prevail.
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