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 Posted by ESPN Staff
May, 3, 2009

Wenger calls for focus ahead of United clash

Arsene Wenger has called on his Arsenal players to enjoy the crunch Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester United and produce the performance needed to keep their European dream alive.

The Gunners should be fresh for the all-or-nothing showdown with the European Cup holders, who will take a slender 1-0 advantage to Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night, after Wenger made eight changes for the Barclays Premier League trip to Portsmouth where his youngsters ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.

Arsenal failed to stretch United at Old Trafford, with goalkeeper Manuel Almunia turning in an inspired display to give his team-mates a fighting chance of still reaching Rome.

While accepting his side have to rise to the challenge against Sir Alex Ferguson's men, the Arsenal manager also knows playing their own natural game will be key.

''Football is enjoyment first, no matter what is at stake,'' Wenger said.

''You can only play well if you enjoy what you do and enjoy the level of the game, to enjoy the game we love.''

Wenger continued: ''I believe the semi-final away from home is the most difficult game in the Champions League competition because you are 90 minutes away from the Champions League final.

''That is what we have to produce on Tuesday night - the game worthy of a semi-final. We have to make it hard for them.

''We will not win with 11 players. You win it with 14 players.

''No matter who starts, what is important is that everybody is focused so they can come on and help the team to qualify.''

Striker Nicklas Bendtner will have done his case for a place in the starting XI no harm at all after a strong display at Fratton Park, scoring the opening goal - with a bit of help from England keeper David James - and a well-dispatched penalty.

Arsenal's leading scorer Robin van Persie faces a race against time to be fit from a niggling groin problem, and so Wenger accepts team selection will rest somewhat on the options at his disposal.

''We looked more comfortable with 4-4-2 and it looked more threatening, but it also depends on who is available,'' the Arsenal manager said.

''However, when you play [Theo] Walcott on the right you play more 4-3-2-1.

''He is a winger not a midfielder, so you have to balance the side to be a bit more defensive.

''Also, when [Cesc] Fabregas plays behind the striker, the striker looks to be a little isolated so you have to get the balance of the team right.''

England forward Theo Walcott, Bacary Sagna and Alex Song - who dropped back to the centre of defence - were the only survivors from Old Trafford.

Wenger maintains 20-year-old Walcott will be one of his key weapons again on Tuesday.

''I wanted to win the game against Portsmouth, and when you are 19 or 20 years old you can recover in three days,'' he said.

''I gave Theo a good breather and took him off with 25 minutes to go. That was just perfect for him and he will not be fazed on Tuesday night.''

Arsenal are now sure of another top four finish following an unbeaten 21-match run in the Barclays Premier League.

While that is something of an achievement in itself given the Gunners' inconsistent opening to the campaign, Wenger has not yet ruled out overtaking Chelsea to gain automatic qualification into next season's Champions League.

''We play Chelsea, they won again and of course it will be short now,'' said Wenger, his side six points behind with three to play.

''We have to beat them, they have to draw another game - but we will try.''

Walcott accepts the Gunners will have to give their ''best performance of the season'' to knock United out on Tuesday.

''It was difficult to get into the game. A lot of our attacking players could say that,'' the England winger said.

''We didn't create any chances and it will need our best performance of the season on Tuesday to go through to the final.

''Everyone was down after the first leg because we lost the game and didn't get the away goal we wanted.

''But, considering the number of chances they had, I think we got away with it.

''We would have taken a 1-0 defeat before the game, especially in view of Manuel Almunia's unbelievable performance.''

Walcott maintains the Gunners are ready for the challenge.

''Now we're all buzzing and we have to believe that we can do it,'' he said.

''It's the biggest game of our careers on our own pitch, in front of our own fans.

''That will be crucial - and we can't wait to get going.''

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