Arsenal are overwhelming favourites to reach their second successive FA Cup Final when they play Reading at Wembley on Saturday but manager Arsene Wenger was visibly tense at the pre-match press conference on Thursday, an indication perhaps that the Frenchman knows the pressure is all on his team.
Reading lie 18th in the Championship and are without a win in any competition since beating League One side Bradford City in their FA Cup quarter-final replay last month. It should be a stroll for the defending champions tomorrow, but Wenger gave little sign of a man at ease with the world.
First, he didn't appreciate television's decision to broadcast Chelsea's Premier League clash with Manchester United at the same time as the semi-final, saying: "There is a bit of conflict there that is difficult to understand, something should be done about it".
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But it was when he was questioned about the future of Jurgen Klopp that Wenger's temper began to fray. Someone wondered where Klopp, who earlier in the week confirmed he was leaving Borussia Dortmund at the end of the season, might end up. "I'm not an agency to place managers and I like every manager and respect everybody, but I find that circus a bit ridiculous," replied Wenger.
Might he be a good fit at Arsenal? "I already answered this question," he snapped.
Only when the talk turned to Saturday's semi-final did Wenger relax, though he emphasised that there was no chance of his players being laid-back against a Reading side bidding to reach their first FA Cup final. To guard against any complacency, Wenger said all Arsenal needed was to remember last year's semi-final against Wigan (also of the Championship), who came within eight minutes of knocking out the Gunners.
"We have learnt from Wigan last year," explained Wenger. "The urgency level will be quite high in our team [because] Reading have many players who have the experience in the Premier League."
Praising Reading's "efficient" style, Wenger said they "go a lot for crosses, so for us they can be a danger going forward". To that end Arsenal will need their 6ft 6in centre-half Per Mertesacker to be at his experienced best, and the German World Cup winner echoed his manager's words in previewing the clash. "Defence is the key and is very important," said Mertesacker, part of an Arsenal side that have won 16 of their last 18 matches.
It's the first time in seasons that Arsenal have strung together such an impressive sequence of results and Mertesacker knows it must continue. "To be consistent, that is a tough target but we push ourselves," he explained. "We want to be able to defend a title and be able to compete at the top which makes us at the moment a good team."
Reading, on the other hand, know that little is expected of them. The last time they reached an FA Cup semi-final was 88 years ago and manager Steve Clarke (who won the cup as a player with Chelsea in 1997) says that his boys intend to give it their best shot against the tournament favourites. "The supporters can go and enjoy the day, that's their little reward for a cup run," he said. "For us, it is to go there with a mentality that we are there to do a job and if we do that right we can go through."
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