Wenger calls for strength in attempt to stop the slide

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The Independent Football

Quite a few things were given an airing at Arsène Wenger's press conference yesterday. The Champions' League, the FA Cup, the Premiership, Manchester United's winning of all three in 1999 and the fixture congestion that comes with it, for example.

Two of those have now slipped from Arsenal's grasp but to hear Wenger speak, you could almost believe that it was doing his side a favour that their only possible trophy was the League title. It was fighting talk, but to observe him at close quarters this was a deflated and subdued Wenger, as you would expect. Now they are out of Europe and the Cup - thanks to Chelsea and United respectively - the Londoners have to win the Premiership if this is not to go down as the biggest collapse in English football history.

Maybe the League is in danger, too. To draw comparisons from golf with the Masters now underway, Greg Norman was in the lead on the final day by six shots from Nick Faldo in 1996. He threw that away and was never as good a player again.

Having had a nine-point lead over Chelsea which is now down to four, could that be Arsenal's eventual fate on the eve of a punishing Easter schedule that sees them host Liverpool today and visit Newcastle in two days' time?

For Wenger, the lure of the Premiership, which, remember, Arsenal lost from such a strong position last season, is still the primary indicator of a team's strength and as such will push his team on. Europe, he thinks, does not do the same trick.

"The team that wins the European Cup is not necessarily the best team in Europe," he said. "And with the FA Cup the team that wins is not necessarily the best in the country."

Wenger has come in for some criticism for his team choices in the past week, after they lost 1-0 to United in their Cup semi-final last Saturday and then 2-1 against Chelsea in the Champions' League on Tuesday.

Yet he refuses to dwell on decisions such as resting Thierry Henry for most of the Cup game. Instead he thinks that Arsenal have been victims of their own success.

"I feel the congestion of the big, big games got us down physically. It affects you in the big games. You could see that against United and Chelsea. But the players have gone for everything with 100 per cent effort.

"I feel unlucky to have faced United in the Cup and League [a week before] and then Chelsea." Talk of the possibility of the Treble that has now evaporated in such a short space of time naturally evoked questions as to how United achieved it five years ago, with just as punishing a fixture schedule.

Wenger's response was to question whether they had it as tough in the Premiership or the Cup as Arsenal have had this season. "I feel every year the FA Cup costs us a lot and this year it did that," he said. "We played only big games in the Cup and maybe physically it took too much out of us." He then wondered if "United could afford [in 1999] to play a few teams with less resistance", before adding: "Their Treble shows what an exceptional team they were with exceptional strength of character." What he should be told is that in the Cup, United beat that year, among others, his own team, Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle.

He then turned his attention to the standard in the League that same season, saying: "The competition in the Premiership back then was less than it is now. There are more teams who can fight and compete now than back then." If that sounds like bitterness on his behalf, it was rather a man trying to take stock of the horror-show he has witnessed from the dugout in the past week.

And with such a difficult recent past to dwell on, it is no wonder he was keen to look forward to the possibility of claiming a first Premiership title since 2002. "I feel we have to respond like a big club does, by getting over the disappointment together. We must come out strong mentally like we have done recently," he said. "We must not feel too sorry for ourselves. We have just beaten a historical record [in the League] and credit to us. Our defeats this season have come against good teams every time."

With two-thirds of the Treble now out of reach, there has even been a suggestion that the feeling of anti-climax would mean the Premiership was small consolation. Wenger's response was firm: "If we go on to win the title, the players will look back on it as a great success. The day you come out and win the championship and people say it is a failure, I would say you are stupid."

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