Wed, May 17, 2006 - Page 20 News List

Wenger believes fate favors Arsenal today

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE After a series of compelling victories, Arsene Wenger believes Arsenal is fated to become the first London club to lift Europe's biggest prize in its showdown against Barcelona today

AFP , PARISAFP, PARIS

Arsene Wenger believes fate is propelling Arsenal towards victory over Barcelona in the most eagerly anticipated Champions League final in years.

The Frenchman has seen his young side defy the odds on their way to a Stade de France rendez-vous with Barcelona, the one side in Europe who can reasonably claim to combine entertainment and efficiency as attractively as his own side.

And with each round, Wenger's belief that this could be the year for his side to become the first London club to lift European soccer's biggest prize has grown.

Famous victories over Real Madrid and Juventus were achieved with the help of Arsenal unexpectedly having the weekend off before both first legs.

An early FA Cup exit ensured Wenger's men were fresh for the trip to Real while a freakish last-minute downpour forced the postponement of a Premiership match against Portsmouth before Juve came to Highbury.

Both matches effectively decided the tie and Wenger admitted: "Those are the kind of signs that strengthen your belief. It is not signs that make you win but they do offer a psychological comfort that allows you to believe a little more."

Arsenal's success in Europe has spectacularly vindicated Wenger's faith in the ability of his young players to cope after the departure of Patrick Vieira.

The former captain's strength and leadership was badly missed as Arsenal struggled domestically. But a different scenario has been played out on the European stage, Cesc Fabregas growing into Vieira's boots in midfield while a cobbled-together defense has fused into a unit to rival great Arsenal back fours of the past.

Wenger admits there were times when even he had some doubts. "At times I really felt as if I was swimming against the tide and when everyone says `he doesn't know what he's talking about' you have to ask yourself the question," he said.

Any fixture involving Ronaldinho, the Brazilian heartbeat of Barca, and Thierry Henry, the Arsenal skipper who could well be gracing the Nou Camp next season, would not have much difficulty drawing a crowd.

But it is the shared philosophy of Wenger and Barca coach Frank Rijkaard that has so many hoping for a classic final.

Barcelona's style, according to Ronaldinho, can be termed "a la Rijkaard."

"It's what you dream about playing as a footballer," says the Brazilian. "We are given complete freedom to attack."

All the ingredients are there but Henry cautions those who argue that fireworks are inevitable.

"At the end of the day it is about winner. People said there would be lots of goals in the Milan-Barca semi but there were hardly any. It is difficult to call but you have certainly got the players to put on a show in Paris," he said.

Wenger believes the character of the match will be determined by whether either side manages to score early on.

"In terms of completed passes, we are the two best teams in the competition. Barca move the ball around very quickly but they also press very quickly. If we can deal with that, then we have a chance.

"In many games like that, it can be quite closed at the start but if one team scores early, I'm sure we will have an open entertaining game."

Arsenal's success in Europe has been built on a tactical shift which has seen Henry operate as a lone striker ahead of a five-man midfield.

"I think we would have scored more goals with two strikers but we would also have conceded more," reflected Wenger.

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