Like Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, Lord Wenger of Arsenal is not for turning. That is the defiant message ahead of the north London club's fourth critical game in 12 days, away to Manchester United today.
With two home draws and a defeat from the previous three (all against Liverpool) and another chance to become European champions lost, criticism from outside the camp has been mounting; Wenger, it is said with some justification, should have capitalised on an unexpectedly successful first half of the season by strengthening the squad with a couple of experienced campaigners even before Tomas Rosicky was injured in January.
Instead, he sold that impatient talent Lassana Diarra to Ports-mouth, and from sitting a potential eight points ahead of United on that ghastly day in Birmingham at the end of February, Arsenal have collapsed to lie six points behind them going into today's set-to at Old Trafford.
Yet even now a victory against the odds would cut that margin in half, sowing a seed of doubt in United minds before tricky trips to Blackburn and Chelsea, and at the very least offering Arsenal every hope of finishing as runners-up; something many supporters would happily have accepted in August. So amid all the external criticism, there is no sign of a back-bench revolt.
If more positive leadership in the wake of the 4-2 defeat at Anfield in midweek might have been desirable from the captain, William Gallas – again – his downbeat comments had to be placed alongside those of Robin van Persie, whose enforced absences from a supporting role in attack have been even more costly than those of the stricken Eduardo da Silva.
While admitting to extreme disappointment at the outcome last Tuesday, Van Persie was vehement in his belief that Arsenal should and will stick to the passing style that won so many friends and, until the last couple of months, games as well.
"I am sure we will not change our philosophy now," he said. "If people will say Arsenal played great football and won nothing, there are a lot of teams who did not play so well and didn't win anything either. This is the way we think football has to be played, the way we really think that we can win things with our approach to the game."
Fail to bring off a famous victory today, however, and even Van Persie admits the title will be beyond Arsenal: "If we win, we will be three points behind them and anything is possible from there. If not, it's finished."
It must be said that the chances of what would have to be categorised as an upset have diminished with the injury to Mathieu Flamini, an underrated ally in central midfield to the hot-and-cold Cesc Fabregas. Gilberto Silva's old head is now on worry-ing old legs, and Wenger remains surprisingly reluctant to trust the much improved Theo Walcott. Another costly injury was the one to Bacary Sagna, which led to Kolo Touré being wasted at right-back as Philippe Senderos flounders in the centre.
While Wenger must both pick a team and pick them up, his old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson is picking from strength after resting Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes and still reaching the Champions' League semi-final in some comfort. Only Rio Ferdinand's injured foot is a concern, in conjunction with Nemanja Vidic's absence, yet Mikaël Silvestre and Gary Neville were able to return in midweek.
Ryan Giggs must play in every remaining game this season – including a Champions' League final – to match Sir Bobby Charlton's club appearances record, and he will not want to miss this one. "We expect a tough game, you expect nothing else from Man U against Arsenal, no matter what's at stake," he said. "They're a talented team, and some of the football they've produced this season has been fantastic. When you lose your pride's hurt, you want to do better next time, and that's the good thing about football, you usually get a chance to soon put it right. They'll be happy their next game is a big game."
Van Persie confirmed as much, and Giggs would surely agree with him too that: "For me, the basic [point] of football is to give enjoyment to people. That's where it starts. We are like 11 actors, we have to give enjoyment to people buying a ticket."
The 76,000 who have one for Old Trafford today should readily acknowledge that they will be watching the two most entertaining teams in the country.Reuse content