Wenger proud of Arsenal's progress

Four trophy-less years are highlight of time in charge, as Villa aim tomorrow to increase chances of a fifth

Arsene Wenger fielded questions asked by Arsenal supporters this week and, as usual, his predictions for that young squad of his were anything but modest. To the question of where he saw his club in five years' time, Wenger answer was: "I hope that this squad will still be together and they will dominate Europe and the league in England."

As wishes go, that was rather more hopeful than the Christmas wish that Wenger nurtured as a 10-year-old, "When I was a kid I wanted a train so much," he recalled, "I got one from my godfather and I still have never forgotten about it." In his position, you might have expected the Arsenal manager simply to hope that his unpredictable team beat Aston Villa at the Emirates tomorrow.

It is one of the stand-out fixtures of the weekend, not least because so far Martin O'Neill's team have beaten the three other members of that elite, but now slightly tarnished, cabal of clubs known as the big four. What is more, Liverpool and Manchester United have both been beaten by Villa on their home patches while Chelsea were dispatched at Villa Park.

There must be aspects of O'Neill's team that Wenger grudgingly recognises in his own. The Villa manager is an astute player in the transfer market and he has placed his faith in youngsters like Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young and James Milner. His teams have pace all over even if they cannot yet claim to pass the ball around like Wenger's Arsenal do when they are really in the groove.

As the turn of the year approaches, Wenger has more to be grateful than most. When Arsenal lost to Chelsea on 29 November they were 11 points behind the Premier League leaders and out the running. Now that gap has been cut to six points. The top of the league is compressed, with eight points separating Chelsea at the top from Tottenham in fifth and now is the time for one club to put together a string of results and take up the running.

For Arsenal, seemingly dead and buried last month, this would be the ideal time. However, in the recent past, they have been hugely disappointing in big games, starting with last season's Champions League semi-final and including the performances against Chelsea this season and, to a lesser extent, Manchester City and Manchester United. Villa, on a run of four straight league wins, would be the slight favourites to take advantage tomorrow.

And yet, at some point you assume Wenger's grandiose predictions for his team will come true. He may have ranted after the Chelsea game about how little he saw in his opposition that day but he did make the point that Chelsea would drop points. In that respect he has been vindicated - Chelsea have dropped seven points since they crushed Arsenal 3-0 at the Emirates.

Villa are level on points with Arsenal, albeit having played one game extra, and even Wenger acknowledged that there is a threat from O'Neill's team. "It is a game where we can strengthen our position in the league, so that's why we will be completely focused," he said. There are worries over the fitness of Cesc Fabregas who missed the game against Hull City with a hamstring injury.

Wenger's favourite topic is the distortion of the league by the wealth of Chelsea and latterly Manchester City, but he also likes to point out that the club have suffered in the last four trophy-less years because of the move to the Emirates. The inference is always that there is less money to spend although no details are ever forthcoming and the message from the likes of Danny Fiszman, the club's boardroom strongman, has often been a conflicting one.

"The last four years have been the most challenging," Wenger said. "It's not linked with the fact we have won no trophies. I think it is moving into the new stadium and keeping the team at the top. For me the best period at the club is the last four years but unfortunately it is also the period where we have not won trophies.

"But people forget we have been reasonably consistent and it has been the most difficult period, but as well for me, the period where I worked the best. Moving into a new stadium, with less resources, [people should] respect the fact we have still made some money in every single year without the team dropping a level, and maintaining a successful period in the Champions League and doing reasonably in the league. I think it was quite difficult."

Best question goes to the fan who asked Wenger whether he meditated and discovered a whole new side to the often harassed-looking Arsenal manager. "I would love to," Wenger said. "I would like to learn. I believe it is a way to switch off and become serene because we are always under pressure and sometimes you feel it would be nice to get out of that a little bit and meditation is a very interesting way. I haven't mastered the technique but I find it very interesting."

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