Arsene Wenger is not a man given to hyperbole so when he says that Arsenal's next four games, beginning with tonight's match against Aston Villa, are the most significant he can remember in his 13 years at the club you know it must be serious.
Over the next 15 days, Arsenal will play four of the teams rivalling them to lay a legitimate claim to the title or just a place in the top four and come Liverpool's visit on 10 February they will know if they are good enough to win a fourth title under Wenger. Tonight Nicklas Bendtner and Samir Nasri will return to the Arsenal bench, a real fillip for Wenger at such a crucial point in the season.
Wenger said: "I have never known a run of four league games as significant as these. Never before in all my time here, not four on the trot. It is a coincidence that we have these games one after the other that are all decisive. If we win them all we are in a very strong position for sure, so let's start with the first one and ignore all of the others.
"You can't say it is a make-or-break because in this league a lot can happen. We are [still] in a strong position having lost at Manchester City, at Manchester United and against Chelsea at home. But if we win these games then we can really have a big hope. We are here despite having lost some games that we should not have lost.
"It is a great opportunity to send a message to the rest of the Premier League. We want to take it and I am very confident that we are in a good position so let's go for it."
Wenger said that the defeat to Stoke City in FA Cup fourth round was so far from his thoughts that he refused to accept it had even happened.
"I forgot already Stoke [sic]," Wenger said. "I did not know we even played at Stoke because I am focused on [Villa]." The decision on where Jack Wilshere will go out on loan will be made later today with Burnley still among the possibilities.
Villa will be without the full-back Stephen Warnock, midfielder Nigel Reo-Coker and striker John Carew for the match. Reo-Coker (ankle) and Carew (knee) are still struggling to shake off their problems while Warnock has failed to recover from the shin injury he suffered in the FA Cup tie against Brighton last weekend.
Captain Stilian Petrov is also still being troubled by an achilles problem. But the Bulgarian midfielder has told manager Martin O'Neill he wants to play and is set to figure. Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne, James Milner, Emile Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor, who were all left out of the starting line-up against Brighton, are all poised to return.