Arsène Wenger introduced a new phrase to the lexicon of the title run-in yesterday when he said that Manchester United's ability to "deal with the money-time" was what separated them from rivals Manchester City.
Wenger's Arsenal have the opportunity tomorrow to deal a significant blow to City's hopes of catching United at the top of the Premier League and their manager was in little doubt about what has separated the leaders from the rest of the pack in the last few weeks. The "money-time", Wenger said, was the last 15 minutes of a tight game at the end of the season when the three points have to be won.
There is no love lost between Wenger and City, who, he joked, had eight former Arsenal players either in their playing squad or among their staff including Samir Nasri, Gaël Clichy, Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor, who is on loan at Tottenham. The Arsenal manager also hinted that this current United team is nothing like as good as the United sides his club overcame to win their three Premier League titles.
Wenger said that City had been "outstanding at home" but "lost a little bit" on the road, where they have dropped points recently at Sunderland and Stoke. Wenger said: "Manchester United is surprisingly there in a comfortable position. No one expected them to be. They didn't look absolutely irresistible this year and you could see that again on Monday night against Blackburn. But they managed to win the game.
"I believe that if United win the title this year it is really down to experience. What I mean by that is that even the other night at Blackburn, when Ryan Giggs came on in the last 15 minutes, you thought, 'They can only win it now', because they know how to deal with the money-time. That means the last 15 minutes in football when it is 0-0. You can't make a mistake. They have that security at the back. They have won so many titles because they are not nervous."
It was unclear where Wenger had picked up the phrase "money-time" – he may have coined it himself – but there did not appear to be any intentional allusion to City's Abu Dhabi wealth. Nevertheless, when pressed on the future of Robin van Persie, Arsenal's captain, top goalscorer and a leading candidate to be Player of the Year, Wenger said that he was not prepared to allow another player to be sold to City.
The next six months will be crucial for Arsenal in securing Van Persie's future. Wenger reminded his questioners that the striker was still under contract and could not be approached by another club. "He has one year to go," he said. "I don't think it's the best subject before Sunday's game."
Asked why he thought City had signed so many Arsenal players since 2008, Wenger replied – albeit with a smile on his face – by saying that it had to stop. "Well, they have enough players there now. Already Adebayor, Kolo, Clichy, Nasri, they have [Patrick] Vieira [the club's football development executive] there, that's five. Brian Marwood [football administrator], Brian Kidd [assistant manager], played for Arsenal. They have seven or eight people from Arsenal, it's enough. Yes, David Platt [first-team coach]. Eight!"
Ask whether he was flattered by it, Wenger said he was "more worried". "They know our players, you know. But it's a little bit of a normal process. Because we have good players and young players and that's it."
Beating City, Wenger said, would move Arsenal closer to their goal of finishing third and securing Champions League football next season. "What is for sure is that a draw for them is not good enough, certainly," he said. "It is true that in the last two seasons they came to play for a draw – and they got it – but I believe that this time both teams are in a situation where they want to win."
There are no further injury problems for Wenger's squad besides the long-term absences of Jack Wilshere, Per Mertesacker and Emmanuel Frimpong but the bulletin on Wilshere was not encouraging. Wenger said that the 20-year-old, who has not played all season as he has recovered from surgery on a stress-fractured ankle, would have to be playing regularly by the end of this month to have any chance of being fit in time for Euro 2012.
Wenger said that the club would have a better idea "in the next two or three weeks". He said: "We try to keep the hope alive for him and without taking too many risks. That means we adapt day to day, to manage him, to improve his physical state and get him fit as quickly as we can without taking too big a risk. That means when he has pain we stop him.
"We are now at the end of March; that means to go to a big competition without having played at all is impossible. In the next four or five weeks we will know more and the next three weeks will be decisive. You would think a player who wants to play in June, at the end of April they will have to be competitive. The next three weeks will decide [if Wilshere can play at the Euros]."
The long-term future also looked gloomy for Marouane Chamakh, who was photographed this week smoking a shisha pipe with fellow Moroccan Adel Taarabt of Queens Park Rangers. Wenger described it as "not the best thing to do" and said it would be dealt with by the club. It was his response to a question about whether the out-of-favour striker would be an Arsenal player next season that was most telling. "That at the moment is too early to answer. We want him to focus completely, without smoking, until the end of the season."