Gunners need warriors
Petit wants to see Arsenal adopt spirit of Ireland and Leicester City
Before his first game for Arsenal against Manchester United in what was the fixture that defined a season in the English Premier League, Emmanuel Petit was called aside for a quiet word.
"I remember right before we came onto the pitch, Tony Adams and Martin Keown, those guys, the Englishmen in the back four, came to me and said 'today you forget about playing football, this is war today'," Petit says.
He recalls how he loved those battles with United, the duels between Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane.
Yet there's very little sign of that fighting spirit in the current Arsenal squad, one of the reasons why the Gunners are so far off the pace in the Premier League and are effectively out of the Champions League, Petit admitting that the task for the Gunners tonight to overcome a 2-0 deficit when they face Barcelona away in the Champions League is an impossible one.
Petit won the double with the club (1998) and owes Arsene Wenger "a friend for 25 years" such a debt that Petit is not a voice in the clamour for Wenger leave his manager's job there.
But he does regret the lack of "warriors" at the Emirates and he feels that the squad's attitude, and the club's recruitment policy, has to change if the Gunners are ever to win a league title, as his side did.
He points to examples like Leicester City and the current Republic of Ireland squad as teams who make up for their lack of quality with a strong spirit, so lacking at the Gunners.
"I think Arsenal has been missing something for ages, it's mental. They've got great players and the way they used to play, for me is one of the best in Europe. But playing well on the pitch doesn't mean you're going to win the title," says Petit.
"You can play badly as well but you win the game. One thing that's wrong with Arsenal is that you can see a lot of the players give up on the pitch. Mentally, I think they need to improve a lot, but in terms of quality they have everything to win the title."
He recalls that triumph over United in 1998, a year when he won the double in England and also claimed the World Cup with France. "This is what is missing with Arsenal sometimes and it's what I miss, I had great memories at Arsenal of those games against Manchester United," he says.
"I remember when we won the double, right before the World Cup, we were 13 points behind United with two games in hand, we won our games in hand and closed the gap, we won the Premier League at Old Trafford, won 1-0 and that game was memorable, in terms of intensity, fighting spirit on the pitch, personality and the pressure before the game, it was huge. I remember all the fight, all the words during the game but that's part of the game and we both, United and Arsenal, would fight in the right way but it's changed nowadays."
Tonight's Champions League tie at the Camp Nou, a ground which Petit graced as a Barca player for a season between his spells with Arsenal and Chelsea, is a lost cause. "If I was an Arsenal player, I would think to myself 'we lost the first leg 2-0, I haven't seen a team win 3-0 against Barcelona, it's impossible, how can we pretend to win against the best team in Europe when we can't win at home to Watford'?," says Petit.
"So before thinking about making the impossible possible, you need to focus on the target you can reach, the Premier League."
Signings would help, and he would love to see someone like Robert Lewandowski come to the Emitrates, "but I am pretty sure he won't leave Bayern Munich to come to Arsenal".
For Petit, some outfits are a one-man team and as a regular viewer of Paris St Germain in his role as TV analyst in France, he feels Ireland can do well against Sweden in Paris next June if they can shackle PSG man Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
"Individually, this team has quality," he says of Martin O'Neill's Ireland side.
"Not a lot of qualities, but if they play as a team, the way they used to play with a great spirit just like Leicester, for example, look at them. They play as a team and for me football is a team display."
"I think Ibra is special. He can do things on the pitch that no one else can do. He's a great player but if the Irish defenders can control him, then you control most of the threat going forward and as well, the spirit of the team.
"The fact that the first game for Ireland is against Sweden, for me it is the perfect occasion to start very well in the competition.
"It won't be easy but I think Ireland have a chance to do a surprise because a tournament is different, you can forget what you've done during the season with your club.
"Most of the big national teams, their players play between 60 and 70 games per year so some of them are very tired actually. When you look at the Belgian team, a player like Hazard, for example, is not the same player he was last season. The same with the Italians.
"I think if Ireland play the way they used to play - they are not the best team in terms of quality - but in terms of fighting spirit, I think they can do something.
"The gap between the biggest countries in football is not that big any more so if Ireland play as a group and with fighting spirit and take their chance when it comes on the pitch, they can do something, yes.
"Surprises happen all the time in tournaments."