Arsène Wenger did not hide from the Champions League on Tuesday night.
“Yes I watched‚” he admitted. “I watched a few games and the main game, of course, was Chelsea. After a while I went to Barcelona against Juventus. It raises many questions about the Champions League, the way it is organised now. We will certainly have to think about it.” What issues? Think about what? “We will speak about it another time.”
Such was the way the Arsenal manager teased as he vacated London Colney on Wednesday afternoon. Europe’s premier trophy still transfixes the man who has qualified for the competition on 21 separate occasions. Wenger being Wenger, he also cannot help but suggest that things could be done better. The details, it seems, will have to wait for another time. Until then, Arsenal have other things to think about.
For the first time since 1999-2000 Arsenal are to be playing in the other European competition, the one currently known as the Europa League. Over the summer Wenger has made his feelings about the competition perfectly clear by choosing to avoid doing so. He rarely discusses the competition and when he does, it is largely to insist that it will be neither an encumbrance nor a priority.
“Wednesday or Thursday night is no difference for us‚” Wenger said when asked to contemplate a change in scheduling from that to which his team have become accustomed. “Apart from the different competition. But you play similarly. Winning the competition is not the best chance [for Arsenal to return to the Champions League].
“It is one of the opportunities but I have come out many times to say I think the best way to do this is through the Premier League. We’ve qualified for 20 years through the Premier League. We want to win every competition we are in but we don’t do that for the reasons of qualification.”
The schedule may not be a problem but Arsenal are still expected to play a heavily weakened side against Cologne, with the objects of Wenger’s Champions League attention, Chelsea, awaiting in the league on Sunday. Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey will not face the German club, a result of their international exertions a week ago, according to their manager. Meanwhile, five more senior names, Alexandre Lacazette, Laurent Koscielny, Granit Xhaka, Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck, were all absent from training at London Colney.
Wenger shared his duties with Olivier Giroud, who looks likely to lead the line as he chases his 100th goal for the club. Also on the cards is a recall for Jack Wilshere, the player whose reputation was burnished by one stellar performance in the Champions League six years ago, a reputation he has struggled to live up to since.
“Jack is very hungry and very determined‚” Wenger said of his charge, with whom he has now worked for a decade. “He is also not completely at his best but he is getting there every week. I think he enjoys being back and enjoys competing for his place. What I see in training is positive.
“When he began his rehab [from a hairline fracture of his left fibula sustained while on loan at Bournemouth] I was on tour with the club but since I came back I have observed him more. I know Jack well enough; he analyses every training session to see how he has done. He has a football brain, you don’t need to tell him much on that front, but I speak to him of course about how I see his evolution.”
Wilshere’s future is one of those matters on which Wenger vacillates, with rumours even this week linking the England midfielder with a January move to the Turkish Super Lig. However, while the manager may no longer see Wilshere as someone he could build a side around, the affection he has for the player is real.
Asked if Wilshere will ever be able to fully realise his potential after such a succession of injuries, Wenger went straight to that Champions League encounter. “If you have seen the video of when he played against Barcelona, you know what his game is about. He needs this little burst to get away from people because he can turn the game forward. If you can turn the game forward you need your legs to get you out of the pressure. That will come back for him, I believe. It’s coming back in training.”
On the surface, Cologne do not look like particularly threatening opposition – they are bottom of the Bundesliga with no points after three matches. They have scored only once during that time. The striker whose goals set up their fifth-place finish last term, the Frenchman Anthony Modeste, left for the Chinese Super League on loan this summer. His replacement, Jhon Córdoba, does not have a prolific history.
A victory will be seen as par and a defeat, of course, will occasion talk of crisis. In this early stage of the season, though, Wenger is staying positive and even the absence from Europe’s elite is addressed with a thin smile.
“Of course the disappointment from not finishing top four was there but we were one point short‚” Wenger said, not for the first time. “We won 75 points last year. Now we are humble enough to be happy enough to win every single competition we are in.”
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