Tuesday September 14 2010
What manager wouldn't feel at least a touch of hubris after watching his team string together 24 passes and then deliver a pay-off so exquisite it would have been staged more appropriately in the Louvre or the Hugh Lane Gallery?
Especially so, you have to believe, if it just happened to be the 1,001st creation of a 14-year regime that has always been imbued, even on the worst of days, with the belief that if football cannot achieve such moments of beauty, it really isn't worth all the trouble.
Unfortunately it is also hard not to conclude that Arsène Wenger became captive to a claim that would have been better left unstated when he declared: "We are equipped to win the Champions League. You know when you see our team play they are not any more tender."
This would be a lot easier to accept if the pass from Cesc Fabregas to Carlos Vela had cut into small pieces the defence of, say, Barcelona rather than that of Bolton. Or, if we want be be really brutal, had it ransacked Chelsea.
Yes, once again Arsenal are producing aesthetically gorgeous football. Yes, Wenger, even in his most erratic mood and wildest statements, remains a beacon of English football, an icon of so much that will always be the best of the world's most popular game.
But then maybe we should try to be honest. If Arsenal were playing Chelsea this week, most of us know where the hard money would go.
It would be on a Chelsea side that in recent seasons have taken what has seemed almost sadistic pleasure in dismantling the notion that Arsenal have been doing more than inhabiting the ageing fantasy that one day soon they will find the mixture of élan, nous and mental toughness that in 2004 carried them to an unbeaten league season.
Even before Carlo Ancelotti arrived at Stamford Bridge, there were times when Wenger seemed to be trapped in a growing sense of futility.
After Guus Hiddink's superb impact on Chelsea, and a crushing FA Cup semi-final victory at Wembley a year last spring, Wenger looked as though he had lost an argument with an earth mover. Wenger said at the time: "Chelsea are very strong and physically mature. What they did today was all based on power and efficiency and they did it well. When you get closer to the trophies this has a big part to play."
When you remember that this was before Florent Malouda found a new dimension, and Drogba finally grasped that the moon and stars were not obliged to constantly revolve around his head, Wenger's latest challenge to end five trophyless years becomes that much tougher than the ones that went before.
Have Arsenal really added sufficient resolve and power to their unbroken artistry? Are they now any stronger than the team that last season subsided beneath the weight of the Chelsea game? Do they have anything like true defensive security waiting for the next brainstorm of Manuel Almunia?
Bolton's befuddled defenders may say so but there are unlikely to be too many echoes in a Chelsea defence that has conceded one goal in four games.
The bruising inflicted by Ancelotti's team of course refused to cow Wenger. He insisted that Chelsea had not dominated the matches. Arsenal in many ways dominated the play. Except, that was, in the matter of converting advantages into the vital matter of victory, of taking hold of those moments which separate the winners from the losers.
Now as the European action starts Wenger again defiantly raises the banner which was carried so close to triumph in the Stade de France in 2006.
You would expect nothing less of the man who carries into the new season the hopes of those of the many who see him as a partisan of some of football's most thrilling expression.
They read in the articulacy of his football and his words the most resonant language in all of the game. But then they should note the caution that must flag every chapter. It says that the final editing may again be cruel.
Especially when Chelsea get their hands on the manuscript. (© Independent News Service)
- James Lawton