Arsène Wenger may still be waiting for his first European trophy but there is no sign of the 59-year-old Arsenal FC manager's faith wavering. "I am an optimist, I believe I will win, and the sooner the better," Wenger said.
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Six months shy of his 60th birthday, Arsène Wenger may still be waiting for his first European trophy but there is no sign of the Frenchman's faith wavering. "I am an optimist, you know. I believe I will win it and the sooner the better," said the Arsenal FC manager, 24 hours before sending his team out for the first leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final at Manchester United FC.
It is four years since Arsenal's last trophy under Wenger – an FA Cup won on penalties against United – and the UEFA Champions League represents their final chance of claiming silverware this term. Yet Wenger's determination to overcome United and reach Rome stems from a much deeper source – the desire to finally be able to place a tick in the box titled European Champion Clubs' Cup winner.
"That is why we are here and that is why we are very, very determined to wipe that out," he said. "It has never been done by the club and I want this pool of players to do it for the first time." In ten previous campaigns with Arsenal, the closest Wenger has come was the 2006 final defeat by FC Barcelona – "The only regret we have from that day was we played with ten men" – and this is only their second semi-final.
A slow start to 2008/09 meant Arsenal failed to mount a Premier League title challenge yet Wenger believes the Gunners have matured since losing last season's quarter-final to Liverpool FC in the final five minutes."The team is mentally strong and very determined and maybe because we have gone through a difficult period, it helped the team, which is very young, to grow. This team is a different animal to last year, mentally especially.
"We have built a young team because we wanted to develop a special way of playing, a special spirit. We think when the players have been educated together from the age of 16-24 there is something special that I hope will come out at this level of the competition." Sir Alex Ferguson, once a fierce rival, applauded this commitment to youth when he said of Wenger on Tuesday: "He has kept his principles always the same and that is great credit to him."
The Arsenal manager is working within a different budget to the other three semi-finalists but underlined he would not alter his approach in any way. "We have gone for a different way to build our team, it is not better or worse," he said. "I believe there is something more than just winning trophies. It is the style of play, the ambition you have with your style of player, the vision, the values the club has. It all has to be right and the trophies are part of it."
Yet though Wenger's vision has produced teams capable of spellbinding passing football, his 16 previous European campaigns with AS Monaco FC and Arsenal have yielded not a single trophy. Indeed he holds the unwanted record of having lost finals in three continental competitions – the 2006 loss to Barcelona followed defeats with Arsenal in the 2000 UEFA Cup final and with Monaco in the 1992 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup. So what would it mean to finally land the big one now? "I love to win and I want to do it for the club, the players and the fans more than for me."