ARSENE Wenger, who yesterday led his players on an open-top bus parade from Highbury stadium to Islington Town Hall, has insisted he would not swap Arsenal’s "unique" unbeaten league record for even the Champions League trophy.
Thousands of supporters gathered on the streets of north London to join in the celebrations, Arsenal having become only the second team in English football history to complete a league season unbeaten after goals from Patrick Viera and Thierry Henry ensured their 2-1 home victory against Leicester City on Saturday.
Wenger, who made a speech to fans from the Town Hall balcony and was also presented with the Freedom of the Borough of Islington, has admitted that not even he had truly believed his side could complete an entire 38-match campaign undefeated.
The Frenchman still had the last laugh on those who mocked him last season, when he set his team exactly that target, comparing him to the former Iraqi Minister of Information. "Somebody threw me a T-shirt after the trophy was presented which read ‘Comical Wenger says we can go the whole season unbeaten’," he revealed.
"I was just a season too early! But seriously, at the beginning of this season, I never felt that we were capable of doing it. Nobody spoke of us and I knew Chelsea had bought many players, while Manchester United had also strengthened their side. I never expected us to do it." After a battling 2-1 win against Leicester, the club’s incredible record nevertheless read: Played 38, won 26, drawn 12, lost 0. That, in Wenger’s mind, meant even more than lifting the greatest prize in European club football.
"Every year, there is a team that wins the Champions League but there is not every year a team that sets a record like that," he insisted. "This is something unique, especially in a difficult championship in England. So would I swap it for the Champions League? No - really. This is something special, something amazing. We can all try to be better but, to do it again, would be really difficult."
While the Premiership remains Wenger’s avowed main target for each season, the Champions League is nevertheless now, more than ever, the one unfulfilled goal at Highbury. Wenger, whose side lost in the quarter-finals in 2001 and 2004, admitted: "The overall achievement of the club this season has been tremendous but we are missing, of course, the fact that we want to win the Champions League.
"But we don’t want to make an obsession of it as, the more you do that, the less likely you are to win it. I hope the players won’t get a mental block about Europe.
"It’s just important to do well in your own championship first. If you look at the eight teams in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, seven of them were in the top two of their leagues. What I would love to do is to do this and the Champions League together!"
Wenger notes the underlying irony in the fact Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League this season by Chelsea, a club they had not lost to in 17 previous domestic encounters.
"We weren’t knocked out by Juventus or AC Milan, but by Chelsea - and we know we can beat Chelsea, we know they are not a better side than us," he insisted. "So I believe we are not far away. Just before we lost to Chelsea, we had won five European Cup games on the trot."
Defending the league title successfully for the first time since Sir Herbert Chapman’s famous side of the 1930s, meanwhile, remains the other challenge for next season.
"That’s a good target to have," observed Wenger, before breaking into a wide smile. "What’s good about England is that you always give me something else to go for! How do you want me to relax during the holidays?"
Meanwhile, it seems his counterpart at Newcastle, Sir Bobby Robson, will remain at St James’ Park for at least another season. Newcastle’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool on Saturday was enough to clinch fifth place in the league ahead of Aston Villa and entry to the UEFA Cup, and Freddy Shepherd, the club’s chairman, said: "Bobby has a year left on his contract and I expect him to see it through."
Robson said: "It has just gone wrong in the last two weeks. But with the help of the wonderful support from our fans we have hung on in there and given ourselves another crack at Europe."