Arsene Wenger has lit the fuse under today's crunch fixture by claiming that Aston Villa have no chance of winning the Premier League. Arsenal are two places behind Martin O'Neill's team but Wenger has confidently claimed his side can still win the title and brushed aside any fears that Arsenal's depleted squad will fail to qualify for the Champions League next season.
Asked whether he feared Arsenal's record of having qualified for the Champions League for the last 11 consecutive seasons would end, Wenger said: "We will keep it – don't worry." On Villa's chances in the league, he said: "I don't think Villa can win the title. Mathematically, they are in there but if you ask me if they can win the title I would say no, because there are other teams who look to me better equipped. But they could finish in the top four."
Despite his record in Champions League qualification, which dates back to the 1998-99 season, Wenger also said that Arsenal "would not die" if they did not make it into the competition this season.
He said that other famous clubs had failed to make it in recent seasons. "This year Milan are in the Uefa Cup, they are not in the Champions League," Wenger said. "Last year, Bayern Munich played in the Uefa Cup. They didn't die.
"These clubs are not less prestigious than any of the teams who play in the top four in England. In sport you have to accept that nothing is guaranteed. Only because we achieve it every year do people think it is guaranteed. It is not guaranteed, it is down to your performances."
The Arsenal manager said that his enduring optimism about his club's chances in the title race came from his belief that none of the leading teams had proved themselves to be "untouchable". He said: "It was always hard but I believe that we can still win the league because no one has impressed me more. We haven't come out of a game with any team this season and said: 'Listen, they are untouchable this year.' That happens sometimes but nobody looks to be untouchable this season. The team with the biggest potential is Manchester United and it will depend how they come back into it and whether they drop points as well."
Wenger promised that his side would find "internal solutions" to compensate for the absence of Cesc Fabregas – by which he meant that he already had the personnel to deal with the club captain's four-month absence. Potential signings in January are more likely to be young, relatively inexperienced players such as Steven Defour, the 20-year-old captain of Standard Liège; his 19-year-old team-mate Axel Witsel; or Blaise Matuidi, the 21-year-old St Etienne midfielder.
Wenger was in no mood to disclose his hand but he did nothing to deter the suggestion that it was largely Zenit St Petersburg, not Arsenal, who were driving a potential deal for Andrei Arshavin. Wenger said: "I believe we can show that we are good enough [without Fabregas] in the next two or three weeks. Of course, we miss a quality player like Fabregas but we are still strong enough to compensate and find a different way to be efficient. The eye of Cesc will be missed but we have to work harder, defend better and find a way to be efficient in a different way.
"I make the decision [to buy] linked with the availability of the players. I have to be convinced that the player will really give us something that is needed in the squad. I will not buy just to think, 'OK we did something.' It's not linked with the numbers, it's the quality. It would be better if they were available for the Champions League."
He ruled out the possibility of Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere stepping up to deputise for Fabregas – "they are still a bit too young" – and conceded that his squad did not have the depth of Manchester United's resources. "Some teams have bigger squads with more potential creativity and in the longer term that has an input," he said. "Look at the offensive potential of Manchester United – they have Berbatov, Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo, Nani, Giggs, Anderson. When you go into March and April and you have two or three players out, they still have players to come in at the top level."
Wenger admitted that he once considered signing Ashley Young but that the fee, rising to £9.65m for Villa, had deterred him – "he was quite expensive £11m [sic] when he was playing at Watford." Arsenal had also considered making a bid for Gareth Barry when he was trying to leave Villa in the summer. However, despite his doubts over Villa's title credentials, Wenger said they could break into the top four.
"It's open, Villa are a threat to the top four but if you ask me if they can win the title, I say no," he said. Arsenal will have Kolo Touré and Nicklas Bendtner available again for the match today while Emmanuel Adebayor is suspended.
May the 4th be with you: Arsenal under Wenger
Arsenal last finished outside the top four in 1995-96, finishing in fifth place, behind ... Aston Villa.
1996-97 3rd in Prem League, 68pts
1997-98 1st in Prem League, 78pts
1998-99 2nd in Prem League, 78pts
1999-00 2nd in Prem League, 73pts
2000-01 2nd in Prem League, 70pts
2001-02 1st in Prem League, 87pts
2002-03 2nd in Prem League, 78pts
2003-04 1st in Prem League, 90pts
2004-05 2nd in Prem League, 83pts
2005-06 4th in Prem League, 67pts
2006-07 4th in Prem League, 68pts
2007-08 3rd in Prem League, 83ptsReuse content