More than bragging rights at stake in N7
London derby now a must-win for Wenger
Arsenal go into tomorrow's north London derby with so many of their old certainties fraying.
Their ability to compete with the European elite is weaker than it has been for years. Their chances of qualifying for next year's Champions League are fragile, and at the mercy of the continuing chaos at Chelsea. And, worst of all, their claim to local superiority is under threat for the first time in Arsène Wenger's reign.
Stewart Houston was in charge the last time Arsenal finished beneath Tottenham Hotspur, in 1994/95. Lose to Spurs tomorrow, and Arsenal will be 13 points behind them with 12 Premier League games left. It used to be unimaginable: last season's 3-2 defeat was their first home loss to Spurs in 17 years.
But after consecutive traumatic cup defeats to Milan and Sunderland, Arsenal is now an anxious place. Tottenham have lost just one of their last 11 games, and last time out in the league played some remarkable football in a 5-0 defeat of Newcastle United.
Wenger could have been forgiven some nervousness yesterday, but insisted that adversity provided the most revealing moments. "We live in a world where everybody is positive when it goes well," he said, "but life is not only ups, it is ups and down, successful lives are how people respond when you are down."
Clearly, Wenger relishes the competitive challenge of the run-in. While he would obviously rather Arsenal were doing better, he loves having something to fight for. "Every game is massive now until the end of the season, but it is exciting," he confessed. "What is terrible is to play a game of no importance. What is important is that we enjoy it and come out with a good performance."
"It is the most important game because it is the next one," Wenger continued. "That is what top-level sport is like. For us it is important but because we have an opportunity to come back closer to Spurs and strengthen our position in fourth place, which is a very important target."
And despite the last week's disappointment, and the inevitable continuation of the trophy drought, Wenger will not permit self-pity or melancholy to seep into his team. "You can't complain," he said. "We are in a fantastic job and we have a big game in front of us. To feel sorry for ourselves would be criminal. We have a good opportunity to show that we have character, the mental qualities to play for this club. No matter what we say at the moment it will be printed in a negative way. It is up to us to transform that into a positive."
Wenger knows that results are worth worrying about, and thinks that criticism is not. "I fight for what I can master," he said. "And I cannot master what people say. It's a waste of energy and of time to speak about people who have opinions."
Arsenal's hopes of reasserting themselves tomorrow have been undermined by injuries. "I look at some teams, top teams, when they just miss one or two players, you really see it," Wenger noted. "So when you look at us, what we had out since the beginning of the season, it was difficult to imagine that you would have so many players out for such a long period."
Aaron Ramsey is out with an ankle strain, Francis Coquelin with a hamstring, and Sebastien Squillaci with a groin problem. With fitness tests today for Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs, the result will be another re-organised defence.
"It was a blow to lose Mertesacker," Wenger said, "because he is a good reader of the game and a calming influence." Johan Djourou is likely to start at centre-back.
Arshavin goes home on loan as Zenit meet Arsenal's terms
Andrei Arshavin last night joined Zenit St Petersburg on loan until the end of the season after a dramatic chain of events at Arsenal.
The Gunners had dismissed two previous offers from Zenit, who it is understood then made an approach to the player directly with an assurance of first-team football. Arshavin (right), keen to play regularly to ensure his place in Russia's squad for Euro 2012, requested a meeting with Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger on Tuesday at which he asked to rejoin his former club.
The Gunners hierarchy demanded a £1m loan fee, which seemed certain to scupper the deal as Zenit "went quiet", according to a source close to the deal.
But Zenit agreed yesterday afternoon to pay the figure, as well as to cover his wages and bonuses.
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