Arsenal v Chelsea: Arsenal have the resolve to come back from Manchester City mauling, claims Arsene Wenger
Wenger: 'If you want to win the league, you want to win the big games at home. It’s as simple as that'
With Manchester City’s relentless pounding of all in their path and Liverpool rocking along at four goals a game, Monday night’s meeting of London elites might still be definitive but not in the way we anticipated the last time Arsenal and Chelsea kicked a Premier League ball.
Jose Mourinho cast this fixture as the match everyone wanted to see, first against second in one of the great European leagues. That was nine days ago. City have subsequently augmented the six-goal immolation of Arsenal by easing into the League Cup semi-finals by way of Leicester and smashing another four goals on the road at Fulham.
Chelsea’s laboured home win against Crystal Palace, which prompted Mourinho’s heightened assumptions about the significance of tonight’s trip to Arsenal were further undermined by the calamitous League Cup exit at Sunderland. Yes, a victory tonight would see Chelsea draw alongside Liverpool at the top or take Arsenal back into the outright lead. But both sides enter the fixture clouded by doubts about their capacity to keep pace with Merseyside and Manchester, never mind set it.
The ever-shifting dynamic at the top is arguably more of a concern for Wenger, as the distance between his last title success stretches to a decade. In 2004, Arsenal’s Invincibles went through the season unbeaten, validating the philosophy and approach of guru Wenger. But already the seeds of Arsenal’s demise were being sewn. Mourinho was on his way from Porto to Stamford Bridge to manage a Russian pot of improbable wealth.
We are 10 years into the transformation wrought by the limitless roubles of Roman Abramovic, and subsequently the Abu Dhabi bullion boys at the Etihad. Finally, reinforced by his own signature purchase of Mezut Ozil from Real Madrid, Wenger was putting a robust case for the beautiful game as he understands it, the Arsenal aesthetic once more setting the Premier League agenda.
Suddenly, after three games without a win, two of those in the Premier League, Wenger can almost feel the ground shifting uneasily beneath his feet. Defeat tonight will leave Arsenal in fourth spot, not the landscape he surveyed on the last day of November when his team swept imperiously through Cardiff. In that urbane way of his, Wenger understands the doubts.
“At the moment everybody still questions us, even more after our defeat at City,” he said. “We haven’t won it for a long time. That’s why they question us. If you win the League Cup, it doesn’t change anything. It’s the Premier League that is the most important thing and we haven’t won it for nine years. Of course it doesn’t strengthen your belief. If you win it every year, you go in there and it’s just ours.
“It makes the challenge more interesting. It adds pressure but you cannot play in the Premier League without pressure. There are periods where the pressure is a bit bigger and periods where it is smaller. You have to live with that and resist that kind of stress.”
Wenger’s belief in the football values he espouses is absolute, as is his optimism, which, depending on outcomes, can appear myopic. Hence the positive spin he put on the defeat at City. That result, when coupled with the defeat at Old Trafford, suggests Arsenal have a problem winning the big encounters.
“People are only keeping in their mind the big matches that we lose. We have won some big games,” is his answer for this.
“What is at stake is if you want to win the Premier League, you want to win the big games at home. It’s as simple as that.
“We can have even more belief after the game at City. Despite the fact we conceded goals - that was a shock for us because we are not used to that – it was not all negative because we could have scored six as well. On the offensive front we have shown that we have huge potential.
“I believe that we should come out of that game even stronger in our belief, even stronger in our resolute attitude, because we have shown until now that we can be very strong defensively, and as well on the day we have shown that we can be dangerous against anybody. We have to show that against Chelsea.”
Following a return of one point from a possible six, Wenger finds himself having to make the case for his team where, for the most part this season, the table has made it for him. The question about Arsenal in big games won’t go away. The opportunity to do so against a manager he has never beaten in any competition is one, you sense, is privately acknowledged.
Recent results, he said, “have been disappointing for us but I don’t think they have affected the morale. We have made good results until now because we have a good solidarity and togetherness, and I don’t see any sign of that dropping. I think even more that the players are focused to respond. It can happen in a season when sometimes you have a bit of a weaker period. How you respond to this is what matters. That is what we want to show.
“We have decided to fight until the last day of the season, and look back at the championship then to think we have given it our all. It is a promise we have made and that is where we can show we are really men, that we can commit to a project to the last day of the season.”
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