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History beckons for Gunners

Forget selective viewing, Arsene Wenger has missed so much over the years that accusations of myopia have followed him. An alternative explanation is that the Arsenal manager has long had one eye on the future. The future, however, has arrived earlier than even he could have envisaged.

It begins in Paris on Wednesday when Arsenal's Ashburton Grove generation could become the most youthful European champions since Ajax. Present and past will merge, too; Arsenal have bid farewell to Highbury and an eminent place in Arsenal folklore awaits Dennis Bergkamp. For Robert Pires and Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, the zenith of their club careers could also mark the end of an era at Arsenal.

Wenger is a visionary, but not even he could have imagined that. He did, however, predict in September that Arsenal would reach the Champions League final. Few gave that insight into the future much credence then; it looks rather more prophetic now. But, unparalleled at identifying, nurturing and transforming talent, Wenger already had a glimpse into Arsenal's future.

The speed of their progress - much like the pace they play at - is remarkable. And it is in Europe where Emmanuel Eboue and Alexander Hleb, in particular, have come of age. The physical frailties in Wenger's squad, invariably exposed in the north west, seem less significant on the continent.

It is a shame, nonetheless, that appreciation of Arsenal has given way to a widespread theory that borderline thuggery - such as that of Sunderland's Dan Smith - represents a legitimate way to stop them. Perhaps it is the most backhanded of compliments from teams making a tacit acknowledgment they could never 'outfootball' Arsenal but there is a difference between the robust and the downright dirty.

But it has long been a paradox that a side constructed by a French manager with a European ethos and foreign flair seemed paralysed when they left these shores. The 5-1 demolition of Internazionale in the San Siro three years ago may have proved a watershed, but a modern variant on the Gunners' past has been the decisive factor this year. Once 1-0 to the Arsenal was a byword for boredom; now, in more enlightened times, 0-0 can provide a triumph of neat passing as much as backs-to-the-wall defending.

Ten consecutive Champions League clean sheets represents a record; Jens Lehmann has not been beaten in Europe all season. But Wenger's two record-breaking defences make for a contrast of styles. The first comprised of George Graham's old guard of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn, expertly shielded by Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. For most of this continental campaign, the ebullient Kolo Toure and the raw Philippe Senderos have been flanked by converted midfielder Mathieu Flamini and Eboue, the most adventurous of right backs.

Cole and Campbell, fit again, have displaced the injured duo of Flamini and Senderos, rookies who provide further examples of Wenger's alchemy. But, in a second paradox, it means a side whose trademark was glorious, inimitable attacking only realised their potential with Scrooge-like defending.

And a manager with an instinctive, treasured faith in 4-4-2 stands on the brink of his greatest achievement by playing 4-5-1, a formation he previously regarded with disdain. Gilberto Silva aside, none of his midfielders' instinct is to prioritise the negative, yet a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch, coupled with slick, swift counter-attacking has served them well.

It is made possible by Thierry Henry, the epitome of Wenger's vision of a footballer. Demonstrably unique and the most visible example of his manager's ability to transform players, he is a hybrid of breathtaking pace, great technical ability and unusual unselfishness.

Yet it is impossible to separate the seismic accomplishment of reaching the Champions League final with concerns about Henry's next move; the parallels with the inspirational Steven Gerrard 12 months ago abound and, outside Barcelona, many will wish them to continue.

Should he, after 214 goals in seven years take his leave, the tag of Arsenal's talisman will pass to the precocious Cesc Fabregas. Henry may be tempted from Arsenal to Barcelona, but the teenage Catalan has made the opposite journey. The cathartic demolition of Vieira's Juventus confirmed his standing, already, among the elite of European midfielders.

Wenger's willingness to sacrifice his captain for Fabregas was both incredible and justified, but Arsenal are also benefiting from Julio Baptista's preference for the bright lights of the Bernabeu. Nothing and no one has impeded Fabregas' emergence and, rather than partnering him in the Barcelona midfield, Edmilson faces the task of halting the Spanish schemer.

The third dominant figure, on the pitch anyway, has been Lehmann. Haughty, melodramatic and short-tempered, he has proved difficult to warm to. But from the ranks of Wenger's questionable buys, he has emerged as that rarest of footballers: a goalkeeper with the personality and presence to dominate a game.

With an inexperienced defence, he has proved invaluable and, with apologies to Jose Reina, no penalty save has been as significant as his block from Juan Roman Riquelme in Villarreal. Easily riled and, this season, often inspired, he has garnered the respect that previously eluded him.

And, in a third paradox, the 36-year-old has ensured the progress of an inexperienced team. Indeed, the fearlessness of youth has been shown by the way Arsenal have exposed creaking opponents with diminishing reputations.

Barcelona, nearer their peak, present a sterner challenge. At the Nou Camp, the football is still more fluent, the star turn perhaps even more extravagantly gifted and the expectations still higher. The wait for Champions League success, for both, has proved long and frustrating.

For Arsene Wenger, the quest has been lengthier than for most. His transitional team appears ahead of schedule now, yet there is no guarantee of a second chance of conquering Europe. Wenger himself stands a man apart, exempt from the mutual backslapping most managers indulge in. Not for him, the public auctions for rivals' most-coveted players. Instead, he has been rewarded for his patience in eschewing the obvious and pursuing the untried and the unknown in the transfer market.

As he reaches the culmination of almost a decade's work, chapters in Arsenal's history - those marked 'Highbury', 'Bergkamp' and perhaps 'Henry' - are being finished. His own place is already assured, but for the Frenchman in Paris, witnessing the future unfold before his eyes, destiny beckons.

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