Football: Wenger puts his faith in new boys
If ever there were doubts that Arsenal would wilt under the pressure of their title challenge, they were dismissed against Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday night. Having struggled to find rhythm and inspiration in the first half, the Premiership champions were boosted by the appearances of substitutes Kaba Diawara, Nwankwo Kanu and Emmanuel Petit after the interval.
With Wednesday goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek in fine form, the early return from injury of Petit was crucial, initiating the frenzied spell of late pressure which led to a double from Dennis Bergkamp and a goal by Kanu. As in the FA Cup quarter-final against Derby three days earlier, when Kanu scored an 89th-minute winner, a clear warning was sent to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge that Arsenal would not surrender the Double without fierce resistance.
As Bergkamp spoke of the side's in-built belief that they could handle any pressure, Wenger shed light on the never-say-die attitude which underpins his side's challenge. As new arrivals - such as Kanu and Diawara this season, and Petit and Patrick Vieira before them - have come to Highbury, they have all been caught up in the pursuit of success.
"It's infectious. There is a pressure from the players within to do well. For us it is important to do what we enjoy well and when you come from outside and feel that, it's easier because there is a positive feeling about the game," Wenger said.
Despite his experience, Wenger has never managed a side which has so much character and consistency. He insists that Manchester United are the title favourites but he declared of his own side: "They never know when they're beaten and refuse to give up. There are a lot of great characters in the team. You are a winner or not and if you are a winner it's important for you to win throughout your whole life. They try to give everything to win and as long as they have a chance, they fight for it. If players like [Tony] Adams or Petit, in fact 95 per cent of the squad, went on holiday and played in a five-a-side game, they would want to win, whether or not they'd just won the World Cup."
It is that strength of character which Wenger looks for when scouting for players. "I've always said that the individual character in the team is more important than the culture. We have the English character and resilience in the team, but you can get that as well with foreigners like Petit and Vieira."
It is also reflected in Berg-kamp, whose exceptional skill masks an ice- cool determination to succeed and who, even after an ineffective first 70 minutes against Wednesday, still emerged as the match-winner. "Like the game against Derby, we didn't feel any pressure towards the end. We knew that we were the better side in those two games," insisted the Dutchman. "You just have to keep going and hopefully the ball will go in. After all, you have 90 minutes to score."
Bergkamp and Wenger both realise that the early return from injury of Petit boosted the side and Arsenal now have an almost completely fit squad, with the exception of Stephen Hughes and Remi Garde.
With no European involvement to handicap them they now lie second in the Premiership, poised to strike and determined to do so.
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