Neil Humphreys: Pace and panache power Gunners
ROUND OF 16, 1ST LEG
ARSENAL v MONACO
(Tomorrow, 3.45am, Singtel TV Ch 111)
In the Champions League, speed is king. Roadrunners rule the roost.
Tippy, tapping, centre-circle jamming looks nice, but nice guys finish last.
Arsenal kept finishing last. They couldn't stay the course.
Four successive Round-of-16 defeats aged Arsene Wenger, leaving him haggard and haunted. His hair went fifty shades of grey as the Gunners were left tied up.
European football had changed. Barcelona's tiki-taka had tapered away. Only fast counter-attacking counted. If you weren't quick, you were comatose.
Over four long years, Wenger's pretty boys threatened to flat-line. They were all foreplay and no climax, too much time spent at first base and no home runs. They were the walking dead.
Finally, Wenger got angry. He added the fast to his fury. Or, more accurately, he put together the fast and the flamenco.
And, for the first time since their Champions League final appearance in 2006, Arsenal have the pace to punish, combining speed of thought with fleet of foot to present themselves as serious contenders.
Wenger's new practical approach seeks vindication tomorrow morning (Singapore time), and he seeks revenge.
Monaco famously fired the Frenchman. Revenge is a dish best served at a cold Emirates Stadium.
And it should be delivered at the feet of an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Chilean and a German. If that sounds like the set-up of an elaborate joke, there is no punch-line.
Monaco should find nothing amusing about Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla.
They bring the fast and the flamenco, the pace and panache that recent Arsenal sides lacked.
The Gunners' new directness brings hope of deliverance.
They no longer play pinball around the halfway line. They penetrate. They push forward quickly. They mix it up, mess it up and occasionally win ugly.
But the key is they win. They keep winning.
Against Crystal Palace last weekend, Welbeck's blistering pace along the right contributed to both of Arsenal's goals and justified his selection.
In the ongoing battle of the sprinters, he's breasting the tape first. He's edging out Theo Walcott.
Suddenly, the Gunners are spoilt for speedsters, on both the pitch and the bench; athletes equipped with the fast-twitch fibres to turn games.
In Sanchez, Arsenal boast a nifty muscle man capable of shifting his hefty frame with remarkable haste, like a bodybuilder dashing along an airport travelator. The big man glides.
Both Sanchez and Welbeck are granted their licence to roam by Cazorla. He still dances, but in a deeper role. In recent weeks, he's been pulled out of the chorus line to play choreographer.
His performances are less showy, but the overall production has improved. Sanchez, Welbeck and, increasingly, Mesut Oezil are occupying centrestage.
Since he returned from injury last month, the German's form has been revelatory. Three goals and a couple of assists tell only half the story.
The light bulb is back on. He's engaged again, the brains of the outfit once more. He's the fastest thinker.
Others are quicker across the turf, but he's already a metre ahead.
Francis Coquelin isn't a speeding bullet either, but he loads the gun. He's the missing link. He's the difference between Champions League progress and a fifth early exit.
In previous campaigns, Arsenal lacked a grafter; a man knee-deep in the mire willing to shovel out the brown stuff.
For years, Wenger was accused of not being prepared to throw a thorn into a side of wilting red roses.
Coquelin is Wenger's compromise. The young Frenchman is a cowboy in the most positive sense. He brings grit.
Like a starter's pistol, the midfielder sets them off. See how they run against Monaco.
The last thing the French side need is speed coming at them. When the money dried up, they became distinctly no-frills and got rid of James Rodriquez and Radamel Falcao.
Monaco were left with Dimitar Berbatov. He's their top scorer with just seven goals in all competitions.
The tortoise is up against hares.
It's a familiar fable for Arsenal, but the roles are reversed.
Wenger has finally accepted that slow and steady does not win the Champions League race.
No time for nostalgia as Wenger faces former club
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will not be wasting any time reminiscing ahead of his reunion with former club Monaco in the Champions League tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Wenger (above) made his name as a manager during a successful seven-year spell at Monaco, which included a Ligue 1 title in 1988, the French Cup three years later and a runners-up spot in the 1992 European Cup Winners' Cup.
But, after being sacked in 1994, Wenger, now in his 19th year in charge at Arsenal, has rarely come into contact with the team where he spent his formative years as a coach.
The Gunners were beaten by Monaco in a pre-season match last August, when a goal from Radamel Falcao, now on loan at Manchester United, gave Leonardo Jardim's side a 1-0 victory in the Emirates Cup.
But this last-16, first-leg clash at the Emirates Stadium will be Wenger's first competitive clash with Monaco, prompting questions over whether he has fond memories of his time at the Stade Louis II.
Wenger's response was clear.
ONE AT A TIME
"I have enough experience to know that the most important game is this one, after, you think about the next one, so it has not been hard," he said, after last Saturday's 2-1 win at Crystal Palace lifted Arsenal to third in the league.
"We fought like mad to come back in a strong position in the (Premier League), and not to win (against Palace) would have been disastrous."
After failing to reach the quarter-finals of Europe's elite club competition since 2010, due to a series of tough draws against the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona, this appears a golden opportunity for Arsenal to finally reach the last eight again.
But Wenger warned his players not to underestimate the French side, who are fourth in Ligue 1 and advanced to the last 16 as group winners, thanks largely to a pair of impressive victories over Bayer Leverkusen.
Said the 65-year-old Frenchman: "We know that Monaco are very tight defensively - they didn't concede in the group stage against good teams.
"Of course, it will be tricky, but a possible tie. It is really a 50-50 because Monaco are in a similar position to us.
"They came back into a good position in the league and their confidence level will be high."
Wenger must decide whether to change a winning side against Monaco, with England internationals Jack Wilshere, fit again following ankle surgery, and Theo Walcott having been left on the bench at Palace.
Monaco's main fitness concern is France left back Layvin Kurzawa, who limped off against Nice with a leg injury.
But Dimitar Berbatov will definitely feature and can expect a hostile reception when he steps out at the Emirates Stadium.
The Monaco striker scored 46 goals for Arsenal's north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in a two-year spell at White Hart Lane before a £30-million ($62.8m) move to Manchester United in 2008.
Berbatov might have turned 34 last month but he is Monaco's top scorer this season with seven goals in all competitions.
Jardim said: "It's normal that everyone thinks Arsenal will qualify. I, too, think Arsenal are favourites but, in football, sometimes money and the favourites don't win." - Wire Services.