Uncharacteristically ill-humoured at the start of last week, with the swear words to prove it, Arsène Wenger had plenty of time and a comfortable Champions' League win over Standard Liège to regain his normal relaxed state ahead of this afternoon's critical home game with Chelsea. Yet the wound of defeat at Sunderland has not healed, and worsened yesterday when the club learnt that their main striker, Robin van Persie, will be missing for up to five months, rather than the six weeks expected.
Van Persie, who suffered an ankle injury playing for Holland against Italy, had hoped to reduce that time to a mere month when he visited the controversial Serbian physiotherapist Mariana Kovacevic. Last night he said he did not regret that, but added: "The ligaments in my ankle were completely ruptured. That's why the treatment in Serbia, we know now, never had the chance to be successful from the start. We have all been steered in the wrong direction."
The implication was that Dutch team doctors had done the steering, which will further infuriate Wenger, who had needed little prompting, even before yesterday's diagnosis, to criticise international friendly matches and the "disrespect" shown to clubs. Wenger is convinced "100 per cent" that Arsenal would not have lost at the Stadium of Light had Van Persie been available. "It is a joke," he said with unusual venom. "They play on Wednesday night all over the world and, on Saturday, you have to go to Sunderland and be 100 per cent. It's impossible. You have to be a magician. They play friendly games, kill your players and say 'do what you want with them now'. There has to be more respect to the clubs."
According to the supporters' song, of course, "Arsène Wenger's magic/ He wears a magic hat". The signs now are that the magician may believe he cannot perform tricks without his most important props. Van Persie, scoring eight goals in as many games up until the end of Octo-ber, had become one of those. With Emmanuel Adebayor sold last summer and Nicklas Bendtner out injured as well (initially playing for Denmark), Arsenal's attack looked fragile at Sunderland and could be exposed again this afternoon against a buoyant side already eight points ahead of them.
Eduardo da Silva, who will presumably come back into the side after being rested in midweek, is no more a classical centre-forward than Carlos Vela, whose deployment against Standard gave the impression that Arsenal were playing without a main striker at all. Furthermore, Eduardo at 5ft 10in is only an inch taller than Vela, so there will be no point in high crosses to be gobbled up by John Terry.
Van Persie it was who extended his team's excellent record against their rivals by scoring both goals in a victory at Stamford Bridge a year ago. In 2009, however, the Blues have beaten Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final after falling behind and then inflicted a 4-1 drubbing at the Emirates in May to make sure of finishing above them in the table for the fifth season in a row.
Wenger refuses to acknowledge any real gap between them. "When we lost 4-1, we could have been 3-0 up in 30 minutes," he claimed. "They had five shots on target and won 4-1. In this championship, nothing suggests any team is flying. People predict that Chelsea will run away with it but I'm not convinced of that. They're a good side but it's open." As for Terry's claim that Chelsea are beginning to feel "invincible", Wenger shot back: "Only one team has been invincible since I was in England." (The unbeaten Arsenal of 2003-04.)
A Chelsea win today, however, would severely damage Arsenal's hopes of a first title in six years, which had blossomed as they recovered in such fine style from successive defeats by the two Manchester clubs early in the season.
A key period – if Arsenal can stay in touch with the other contenders – would appear to be January and the African Nations Cup, when these two clubs will lose half a dozen players between them: Emmanuel Eboué and Alex Song on one side, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel on the other.
Whether or not Chelsea take advantage of having their transfer embargo lifted, Wenger is adamant that "you do not buy a player for one month". No Ruud van Nistelrooy then, as has been mooted in the popular prints? "Certainly not!" he responded. But loaning a striker for five months may now have to be considered.
Everton v Liverpool (Sky Sports 1, 1.30)
A sobering day to end a similar week; the Mersey derby is reduced to a local squabble as the city tries to convince sceptics it will one day have a stadium worthy of hosting 2018 World Cup games. Local pride may be at stake; national prestige will take longer to restore.
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Birmingham City (12.0)
Birmingham City's manager Alex McLeish says this pair are "eeksy peeksy", which apparently translates from the Scottish as "on the same level". Wolves will be grateful for that after having eight goals knocked past them by Arsenal and Chelsea.
Arsenal v Chelsea (Sky Sports 1, 4.0)
Invincible at Stamford Bridge since Arsenal won there exactly a year ago, Chelsea have looked more vulnerable on their travels. While the home side scratch around for players, Carlo Ancelotti wonders which midfielder to leave out.
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