Focus is key for Arsenal's endgame

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The Independent Football

For seven long months Arsenal have ploughed stylishly through the dual campaigns of the domestic and European game, sustained by the well of pain they developed after last season's surrender of the title.

For seven long months Arsenal have ploughed stylishly through the dual campaigns of the domestic and European game, sustained by the well of pain they developed after last season's surrender of the title.

Now, nine points clear in the Premiership, paired with a disjointed Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-finals, and facing their "bunny", Chelsea, in the Champions' League quarter-finals, they must guard against that most implacable foe of the talented: complacency.

This afternoon, at Highbury, they will be reminded of the way this stealthy opponent slipped under the radar last season, prompting a crisis of confidence that ended with the relinquishing of the Premiership pennant.

Seven points had been dropped in five matches but Arsenal remained masters of their own destiny when they visited the Reebok on 26 April. Well into the second period they were two-up and coasting to a victory that would return them to the summit. Arsenal eased up, inviting pressure.

With Martin Keown scoring an own goal, Bolton Wanderers forced a draw. The following day, at White Hart Lane, United moved five points clear. The race was over. The eight-point lead Arsenal held in March was ultimately replaced by a five-point deficit. Bolton was, said Arsène Wenger yesterday, "the final blow".

It can happen. Even the shortest-priced favourites fail. For a moment at Cheltenham on Thursday afternoon it seemed Best Mate would be boxed in and lose the Gold Cup. The thoroughbred came through but horse racing has many examples when one has not, most famously Devon Loch's collapse in the 1956 Grand National which let ESB in for victory.

It may be tough being second but leading carries a pressure of its own. Greg Norman's disintegration against Nick Faldo in the 1996 US Masters was a classic example, the Australian letting slip a six-stroke lead in the final round to lose by five strokes.

In 1989, Laurent Fignon's third Tour de France success seemed secure as he embarked on a victory lap around Paris on the final-stage time trial. Greg LeMond remorselessly overhauled his 50-second lead to win by eight seconds, the narrowest margin in Tour history.

No such list would be complete without mention of Headingley '81, when Ian Botham and Bob Willis inspired England, at one stage 500-1 outsiders in a two-team contest, to the most remarkable of all Test victories over Australia.

Returning to football, there were plenty of examples of a front runner imploding before last season, dating right back to Sunderland's failure to hang on in 1901.

Manchester United will this weekend be recalling 1996, when Eric Cantona's invention, and Peter Schmeichel's resistance, led a late charge which reeled in Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United. Twelve points clear in January, they finished four adrift.

Arsenal's coach, Pat Rice, will remember being in the Arsenal team which, having been seven points (equivalent now, in these days of three for a win, to 10 points) behind Leeds United at the end of February 1971, put together a run of nine successive victories which enabled them to take the title, and their first Double.

In mid-March the previous year Leeds, like Arsenal this year, had looked on course for the Treble. Of their first 52 matches that season they had lost three, a run which put them top of the pre-Premiership Football League, and in the European Cup and FA Cup semi-finals. However, a run of eight matches in 22 days sapped their energy. The championship was lost to Everton, the European Cup semi-final to Celtic and, after an exhaustingly prolonged semi-final with Manchester United, the FA Cup to Chelsea.

Fixture congestion is a threat to Arsenal now. Including international fixtures, some of Wenger's players face 19 matches before the club season ends, with 15 coming in the next 50 days. If Arsenal keep winning, the first midweek break for many players will be in mid-May, after the Premiership concludes.

Wenger admitted yesterday to being concerned and said he would ask Sven Goran Eriksson and Jacques Santini to use his players sparingly in their friendlies later this month [England are in Sweden, France in the Netherlands].

"I will speak to both of them and I hope they will be understanding. Every manager in my position would be worried," Wenger said. "What I'd like to say to them is 'Don't take all these players who are involved in Champions' League and other big games, try other players who are not involved'."

Modern players are fitter, refuel more effectively, play on better pitches with lighter balls and have improved medical back-up. But the game is quicker and the media pressure relentless. Arsenal's squad is smaller than Chelsea's or Manchester United's and Wenger does not rotate it as much as Claudio Ranieri and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Referring to Wenger's reliance on a small cadre of players, Ranieri said: "It is not easy to play all these competitions, FA Cup, Champions' League and Premiership, with 14 to 15 players."

A true assessment, or wishful thinking? Players, it is often noted, never get tired of winning but the human body has its limits. It is not just the physical exhaustion, it is the mental draining that Wenger must measure.

Arsenal, however, have the momentum. In most of the cases detailed above the pursuers were buoyant. Chelsea and Manchester United are not. Chelsea have to cope with the knowledge that Arsenal can beat them at will, and Ranieri is a lame-duck manager. United are handicapped by injury and suspension and a raging anger at their sudden mortality.

Yesterday Ferguson, taking a break from marshalling his dwindling resources for today's match with Tottenham, said: "We have got potentially 12 games left this season and we have to use these as the message that we are back in our normal position in terms of winning matches. That's the name of the game for us and it's always going to be that way. Winning is a cure for everything."

Wenger had a consoling word for Ferguson, tied in with a cautionary one for his team. "The criticism United are getting is a bit over the top as, when you work in this job, you know how precarious things are," he said, adding: "They were ahead of us eight games ago, that's why we're on our toes. We don't want a blip. It is normal for opponents to hope for it but we have to show maximum commitment and concentration. We know something can go wrong."

Sam Allardyce, Bolton's manager, believes Arsenal will lose, eventually, and hopes it is today. "To go undefeated in both cups and undefeated in the League is asking too much," he said. "It's inevitable they will lose a game."

Is it? No one at Arsenal thinks so, but neither are they so daft as to say so. They are, said Wenger, simply "living in a bubble on a daily basis, just playing our games".

For seven months Arsenal have been in this bubble, successfully avoiding self-doubt, which would paralyse their free-flowing game, and over-confidence, which would take the edge off it. There remain, all being well, 68 days in which to maintain this balancing act and so seal a place in history.