There is no greater challenge for a footballer than to be told they are playing for their future but as Arsenal approach the final straight of the marathon they hope will end with Champions League football for a 16th successive season, manager Arsène Wenger knows that now is not the time for sentiment.
Trailing fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur by four points going into the Easter weekend, Wenger issued a stark warning to his players that the next nine games will determine how extensive his recruitment policy will be in the summer. In the absence of Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and the unfortunate Abou Diaby who was ruled out for nine months on Thursday with cruciate knee ligament damage, several fringe players will be handed the responsibility of maintaining Arsenal's recent upturn in fortunes against Reading at the Emirates tomorrow afternoon.
Successive victories at Bayern Munich and Swansea City have lifted the gloom in the wake of the disastrous trio of defeats that preceded them. Now, with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny already relegated to the bench, the spotlight will fall on the likes of Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud to prove they are capable of performing at the highest level.
"What is important is we look at how we finish the season, how well we play and make the decisions who to buy and who to sell at the end of the season. This will be influenced by the way we play in our last nine games," said Wenger.
"We have five players for the England national team and 22 international players. So we have to analyse. What will decide our attitude, my attitude, is how we do now until the end of the season."
Wenger has been here before, of course. By the end of March last season, Arsenal had already overhauled a 10-point deficit to Tottenham in third place and went on to qualify for the Champions League automatically on the final day of the season while their neighbours ended up missing out altogether thanks to Chelsea winning the competition.
This time, the loss of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, followed by morale-sapping cup exits to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers and the defeats to Spurs and Bayern could have been terminal. But Wenger praised his side's response to adversity that has reignited hope that all is not lost.
"They have shown the mental strength as we lost against Blackburn, Bayern and Tottenham," he said. "What is for sure is that we have had some blips that were not expected: Blackburn and Bradford. But overall I must say the attitude of the team has been great and when everyone is here we have a strong team."
Without Van Persie, Arsenal have only scored three goals less after 29 league games than last season, with Walcott and Santi Cazorla both on 11. The visit of Nigel Adkins and his new Reading side this afternoon should be an opportunity to improve that record, although Wenger acknowledged that it has been their home form against higher-placed teams that has been their Achilles heel.
"[Lukas] Podolski, Giroud, Walcott, Cazorla can all score. We have shared more goals than last year," he said. "Away from home we are one of the two strongest teams so where we have a deficit of points is at the Emirates.
"Where we haven't done it this season is in the big games. It's strange because last season we were top of the league with the big teams. This year we are bottom of the league with the big teams. It's difficult to know why. Not because we have been dominated. We were never inferior possession-wise but just because after 20 minutes we were chasing in every game."
Arsenal's women's team will play Wolfsburg in their Champions League semi-final next month.
Safe, worried or out who's feeling the pressure?
Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Nacho Monreal, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mikel Arteta, Carl Jenkinson
Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey, Lukas Podolski, Wojciech Szczesny, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker, Olivier Giroud, Tomas Rosicky, Laurent Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Lukasz Fabianski, Francis Coquelin
On the move
Sebastien Squillaci, Andrei Arshavin, Andre Santos, Nicklas Bendtner, Marouane Chamakh, Denilson, Emmanuel Frimpong, Johan Djourou, Park Ju-young
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