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Football: The madness of King Arsene; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: ARSENAL v BARCELONA WEDNESDAY, STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS, KICK-OFF 7.45PM, LIVE ON ITV1 'IN AUGUST, THEY CALLED ME CRAZY FOR SAYING WE COULD WIN IT - WELL, I'M STILL CRAZY'.

Byline: paul SMITH CHIEF FOOTBALL REPORTER

ARSENE WENGER was in danger of being dragged away by the men in white coats when he predicted at the start of the season that Arsenal would win the Champions League.

But this week the Frenchman is convinced he will have the last laugh, that Arsenal will turn a season of domestic inconsistency into the greatest night in the club's history as Thierry Henry holds aloft the European Cup in Paris.

"I said we would win the European Cup at the very start and everyone thought I was crazy. Well, I am still crazy and I still believe we will win the European Cup on Wednesday night," said Wenger.

While Arsenal laboured in the Premiership they continued to confound their critics in the Champions League and Wenger admits sacrifices had to be made to feed an insatiable appetite for European glory.

The manager added: "This Arsenal team were out of the Premiership race and I always felt the players had chosen this competition subconsciously. At best we felt we could maybe come back into the fourth spot to qualify for Europe next season and sometimes sacrifices have to be made.

"Europe was a completely different story. We had a good start and I felt the concentration was always fully there in the Champions League and that we had the potential to win it.

"Statistically, when you are in there every year, you know at some point it's going to go for you and I was convinced our time had come."

At one point Wenger threatened to ditch the 4-5-1 system employed to account for the scalps of some of Europe's biggest clubs en route to the final this season after he used it for the first time against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup Final. Although Arsenal eventually won the Cup after a penalty shoot-out, they were outplayed by United in Cardiff.

Wenger revealed: "I came back in the middle of my holidays to watch the tape again because one month later I couldn't understand how we could have been so bad.

"I thought, 'I will never play this system again because to win the FA Cup was the biggest miracle since I came to England'.

"There was nothing to convince me at all that this system was right for us. It was more the opposite.

"But I changed my mind because I felt in the League, with so many offensive players, using a 4-4-2 system we didn't have enough physical power and I didn't want to lose attacking players in Europe. I felt we had a bit more security by adding one more player to the central midfield."

Wenger admits that the drama on the final day of the season last weekend that saw Arsenal secure fourth place and a ticket to next season's Champions League will allow his side to focus on the game in Paris.

"Securing fourth place in the League and qualifying for the Champions League allows us to play with a lot less pressure because the biggest worry for us was if we hadn't finished fourth, what happens?"

The Arsenal boss doesn't subscribe to the theory that victory will be secured if his team can stop Barcelona from playing.

He went on: "I am convinced the game will be won more by us having a go at them than trying to stop them.

"Make no mistake, Barcelona are the super-favourites and we are the dangerous outsiders. But I feel if we play our natural game we will be the super-dangerous outsiders.

"My job on Wednesday night is just to get the team to play at their best, believe in themselves - and I'm convinced that we will win the Champions League."

The destiny of the trophy is expected to be largely decided by the performances of the opposing teams' key players, Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho. And while Wenger wishes to take nothing away from the brilliant Brazilian, he maintains his French captain has done enough to be acclaimed as the best player in the world.

"Ronaldinho and Henry have different styles," he explained. "I would like Thierry Henry to be voted the best player in the world because he deserves it.

"I feel that every year Thierry has made a step forward and that he has matured. He is a team player, a team leader and an exceptional striker.

"If you look at his record over the last five years it's exceptional. People don't realise what this guy has done. It's only when you compare his stats with other players that you realise."

While maintaining that Henry will stay and not turn his back on Arsenal to join their rivals after Wednesday night, Wenger rubbished claims that his captain's decision to delay committing his future to the club will have any bearing on the result.

"No matter what the guy does in July, when you go to a European Cup Final you don't worry about Henry's contractual situation. You worry about bringing the trophy back.

"I cannot tell you for a second what I will do on Thursday or Friday because I haven't even considered it. I just want to go to Paris and bring the trophy back and the players are exactly the same.

"What follows, follows. But I have said all along I'm convinced that Thierry will stay, even though he's not come out and said that. But come Wednesday night nobody will care about that. They just want to go there and win it together."

He does admit there are striking similarities between Arsenal's campaign and that of Liverpool last season and he hopes it ends the same way - with European triumph and the club's star player deciding to stay.

"There are many similarities between Liverpool's season last year and ours this year. They had the Steven Gerrard contract case, we have the Henry case. They didn't do well in the Premiership, Arsenal haven't done well in the Championship.

"It's very similar and it will be very good if our season reaches the same conclusion."

PARTY TIME

But who'll be celebrating on Wednesday night?

ARSENE Wenger (above), believes Arsenal will go into the Champions League Final with no pressure on them after clinching a place in next season's tournament on the final day of the Premiership season as they said an emotional farewell to Highbury.

Barcelona also had plenty to celebrate last week after clinching the La Liga title.

And now both sides are hoping to kick off an even bigger party in Paris.

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SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT: Arsene Wenger is convinced that his men will triumph in Paris
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 14, 2006
Words:1105
Previous Article:Football: GIO PROMISES A GOAL FEAST; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: ARSENAL v BARCELONA WEDNESDAY, STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS, KICK-OFF 7.45PM, LIVE ON ITV1.
Next Article:Football: INJURY-PLAGUED FREDDIE READY TO SAVOUR SWEDE SMELL OF SUCCESS.



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