ARSENAL manager Arsene Wenger has warned his team that the slightest slip against Monaco tonight could cost them a return to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years.
The Gunners are fancied to overcome a team fourth in France’s top flight and end their unhappy habit of crashing out in the last 16, as they have the past four seasons.
Those defeats came against European heavyweights Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AC Milan and, save for last year, were ultimately by fine margins. That has led Wenger to remind his players that the one major honour to elude him will continue to do so unless they demonstrate ruthlessness against his former club at Emirates Stadium.
“Easy is a word you have to ban in the Champions League. It’s hard earned every time. It is always one goal difference and that means you have to work very hard,” he said.
“What has happened in the last four years is we have gone out two times against the winner, and it has been on goal difference or because of one goal. That shows that every single minute of this game will be massively important. We have gone out, yes, but just, and what we want is to stay in, even if it is just.
“Even in the last four years we always came out frustrated because three times we conceded a goal at home in the first 30 minutes and that goal knocked us out. We can learn from that tomorrow [tonight].”
The Champions League remains a conspicuous omission from a Wenger CV that includes four domestic titles, seven cups and three appearances in European club finals – all lost. He admits it is the honour that he craves most but is refusing to imagine ending that wait in Berlin on 6 June, even if his latest Arsenal team is showing signs of blossoming.
“Yes of course because we were so close,” added Wenger, who said the convalescing Jack Wilshere would be rested but insisted he had not suffered a fresh setback.
“We played one final, two semi-finals, four quarter-finals. What you want to do is to go to the end and win it. But you have to do it step by step. If you look at the teams competing, you have always a reason to think its difficult. So let’s just try to do the next game, go into that with belief and humility, and try to give absolutely everything we can.”
Wenger played down the significance of facing Monaco, where he forged his coaching reputation in a seven-year spell until 1994 and whose current strength lies in a miserly defence that has kept 15 clean sheets in their last 17 games.
“I’m happy that Monaco are back at the top level,” he said. “For the rest, I’m for 18 years manager of Arsenal and focused just on qualifying for the quarter-final against a good side.”
MONACO: MISERLY BUT MISSING KEY PLAYERS
Monaco won their Champions League group while Arsenal were runners-up in theirs, despite the French side registering just 11 points (two fewer than the Gunners) and scoring only four goals (to Arsenal’s 15)
Leonardo Jardim’s side are good travellers, with the best away record in Ligue 1, including four wins in a row, helping them to fourth in the table
Defence is undoubtedly Monaco’s forte. They have lost just once in 17 games – a sequence in which they have kept an extraordinary 15 clean sheets. Arsenal can take encouragement from the fact their two first-choice central defenders, Andrea Raggi and former Chelsea man Ricardo Carvalho, are both injured. Key midfielders Jeremy Toulalan and Joao Moutinho are also set to miss out
Arsene Wenger is just one several men to have moved to Arsenal after stints at Monaco, including club record scorer Thierry Henry, World Cup-winning midfielder Emmanuel Petit and much-travlled centre-forward Emmanuel Adebayor, now of rivals Tottenham
This is Monaco’s first appearance in the Champions League last 16 in 10 years. Arsenal, by contrast, have reached this stage for 15 successive seasons but failed to go further since 2009-10