Milan fire up Wenger
Arsenal boss cut up about pitch but says Henry can help blaze winning trail in Italy
THE job of a football manager can encompass everything from social worker and psychologist to headmaster and sports scientist.
As he prepared his team for the inferno that is AC Milan's San Siro, Arsène Wenger opted for the analogy of firefighter.
Wenger has certainly never faced a season in which he has been forced to extinguish more blazes but, with his team having displaced Chelsea in fourth place in the Premier League, he is well aware that the heat has now turned onto Andre Villas-Boas.
Wenger also knows that the next month presents a huge opportunity for Arsenal both to consolidate their narrow advantage over Chelsea and take significant steps towards a first trophy since 2005.
A positive result tonight would put them in sight of the last eight of the Champions League and they could also move into the quarter-final of the FA Cup with victory against Sunderland on Saturday.
"The crisis at the moment in England is a bit like fire," Wenger said.
"It moves very quickly from one club to another. It's a fire with strong wind so you have to be a bit cautious because it can quickly come back. The wind can blow it quickly back. This is the important time for us.
"We have to show that now and not to consider too much whether it's Chelsea or us (who finish fourth).
"It is more stimulating and more stressful in Europe because it is a cup game now. Anything can happen."
Arsenal's last visit to the San Siro was in 2008 when they progressed past AC Milan with a 2-0 victory but, on his return last night, Wenger expressed concern at the quality of the playing surface.
"It's worrying," he said. "They re-laid the pitch on Monday and it takes time to settle and become flat. It's terrible.
"Out of respect for the supporters, it should be a better pitch."
Arsenal, of course, will hope to particularly exploit those wide areas against a Milan team who retain considerable quality and experience but do lack width.
Wenger dismissed any suggestion of a conspiracy and is still urging his team to take the game to Milan. There were also two mixed -- yet equally significant -- injury updates.
Per Mertesacker has returned to Germany to see an ankle specialist and the fear now at Arsenal is that he will miss the rest of the season.
It means that Wenger must decide tonight between asking Kieran Gibbs to start at left-back in what would be his first match in four months or again selecting Francis Coquelin out of position. One certainty is that Thomas Vermaelen will return to his preferred position at the centre of Arsenal's defence.
"We play in many competitions now and we can't lose a player like Mertesacker," Wenger said.
On a brighter note, Wenger believes that Jack Wilshere can return as early as March following the stress fracture to his heel. "The recovery of his latest problem looks very, very good -- Jack can be back (in training) within the month if all goes well," he said.
Wenger also retains hope that Abou Diaby will play again this season, while Gervinho has returned from the Africa Cup of Nations and could face Sunderland at the weekend.
Thierry Henry, however, will be making his final appearance tonight in this second short, but sweet, spell at Arsenal.
With Henry having scored both on his comeback and in what was his last Premier League game on Saturday, Wenger is not dismissing the possibility of another fairytale tonight.
San Siro, of course, was the scene of a memorable Henry hat-trick during a 5-1 defeat of Inter Milan in 2003.
"He can do it again, especially on a territory where he will be highly motivated -- he comes on with that certainty and says 'OK, let's deliver'," Wenger said.
Henry is again likely to be used as an impact substitute, with Theo Walcott expected to start on the right with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, of course, embodies the progress that has been made in recent weeks at Arsenal.
Yet with fires still raging all around English football, Wenger knows that his team are not yet out of the woods.