Arsène Wenger has seen most things in his 13 seasons as Arsenal manager, though not even he has faced the possible backlash from an England captain scorned. Treading carefully to avoid any direct comment on John Terry on Friday, Wenger was more concerned that his team should produce a positive response to their own setback, namely the comprehensive home defeat last Sunday by Manchester United.
A reverse of any sort at Stamford Bridge today and Arsenal will be nine points behind Chelsea, looking over their shoulder when they play Liverpool on Wednesday in the last of the four matches that were always destined to define their season. The balance so far, after a goalless draw at Aston Villa and the 3-1 defeat against United, suggests Wenger's team are toppling towards "break" rather than "make", but as ever he retains more faith in them than most critics and many supporters. "Why should we suddenly think we are useless?" asked Wenger. "We have quality and have surprised everybody so let's really go for it. We have really top quality and what we want to add is that fraction of belief that we have to find within our group."
Quality or not – and who could deny it when Arsenal are at their pass-and-move best? – there is an admission there of psychological frailty that the manager nevertheless believes applies only against United. Having torn his team to shreds at the Emirates in the Champions' League last season, the visitors again scored the first goal on Sunday, after which, as Wenger says: "We started to doubt a little bit and that's where we were insecure. Maybe the Man United throwback to the Champions' League, that's what I questioned after the game. Is what happened to us last year still in our minds?"
It is tempting to say the same must apply after equally demoralising scorelines at home to Chelsea in the past nine months of 1-4 and 0-3. Not so, says Wenger: "Chelsea at home last year was an accident, because we'd just gone out of the Champions' League and it could have been 3-0 to us and suddenly it's 3-0 to them." He also refuses to accept that Didier Drogba, with nine goals in as many games against Arsenal, especially intimidates them: "But you give him one minute of freedom and it's enough. That's why he's a great player."
Consolation, as he points out, is that under similar pressure earlier last season after successive League defeats, Arsenal went to the Bridge and won with two goals by Robin van Persie (now, of course, missing with injury). That makes three meetings in a row that have been won by the away team, emphasising the counter-attacking qualities of each side.
A further similarity that will come under close scrutiny this afternoon is the occasionally suspect form of the two goalkeepers, Manuel Almunia and Petr Cech. To be fair, Cech has been more solid again recently, whereas Almunia was at fault for at least one of United's goals last week.
Wenger sympathises and criticises his keeper only for putting too much pressure on himself: "It's a terrible job. If a striker misses two chances and scores two, he's a hero. If a goalkeeper has a fantastic game with one mistake, he's a villain," he says.
"In England it's even harder, people stand on your feet on the crosses. It's the most pressurised job in football." Whether he was including the manager's was not clear.
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