Arsène Wenger is confident that Jack Wilshere will play again this season. The Arsenal manager said yesterday that the England midfielder's participation at the European Championship is a "possibility".
Wilshere has not played all season, after undergoing surgery on his right ankle last September. Two months ago he developed another stress fracture in his heel, holding back his progress and jeopardising his chances of playing this season. But the 20-year-old has returned to light training, and Wenger was noticeably upbeat about it yesterday afternoon.
"Wilshere is back with the ball and for us that is a huge step," Wenger said. "The work we do with the ball is always quite demanding. Today we can say if all goes well now, in three weeks he will be back with the squad. Then another two weeks to get fit."
Five more weeks of recovery would see Wilshere returning in May, with two weeks of Premier League football left, but Wenger believed he could do it: "I think he will play this season if he has no setbacks now. His last scan was positive, he should be capable to play. The next three weeks will decide how well he progresses. We have gone for a very cautious attitude with him. We will not force him into training with any pain. So we might have to be slower than expected."
Should Wilshere return, there will be an inevitable clamour for his inclusion at the European Championship. Wenger, not always enthusiastic about international football, did not rule out his participation, providing he has played enough club football to recover his sharpness.
"That's a decision fortunately that I don't have to make," Wenger said. "I will only intervene if I believe medically he is at risk. He is an England player. If he has played some games before the end of the season it is a possibility. If he has not played at all before the end of the season I don't think it's realistic."
The Arsenal manager was less keen, though, about the prospect of Wilshere playing at the Olympic Games, the final of which ends one week before the start of the next Premier League season. "The Olympics destroys the start of the season for us," Wenger said. "If he could play I would rather him go to the Euros."
Wenger paid tribute yesterday to the resilience of Fabrice Muamba, the Arsenal academy graduate who is recovering from a cardiac arrest suffered last Saturday when playing for Bolton Wanderers at Tottenham Hotspur. "It was obvious he was a fighter," Wenger said of his encounters with a young Muamba. "Technically he was behind when he arrived here. When you looked at him, you would think, 'Oh, there is something he has to work on here' and that was his huge determination and desire.
"Today we are in a better mood than one week ago," Wenger said. "I am not a medical specialist and do not know if he will play football again, but the most important thing is that he recovers fully and completely. Afterwards hopefully we will have the joy to see him on the football pitch again."
Arsenal host Aston Villa this afternoon, hoping to win a seventh straight league game for the first time since October 2007. While Wenger is delighted with the transformation, he was keen yesterday to manage expectations, especially about potentially challenging the Manchester sides next season.
"Let's see how we finish," Wenger said. "We have big games coming up. If we maintain consistency until the end of the season we can think like that. If we don't drop any more [points] I would say that we can come to that conclusion."
The situation is the opposite of last season, when Arsenal started well before fading in the new year. "We are more on the way up mentally," Wenger explained. "Last year, it was all disappointment after disappointment. We lost the League Cup, Champions League in Barcelona and to Manchester United [in the FA Cup] in 10 days. That is difficult to swallow.
"Nobody wants to finish fifth but even fifth today is not sure," Wenger continued. "We have to be humble, focused and feet on the ground. We have gone through some difficult times during the season."