It is at this stage of a season that Alex Ferguson starts talking about the need for teams to have experience of winning championships. He was at it again yesterday, commenting that, "knowing how to win [the title] is sometimes better than having the ability to win it".
It was a dig at yesterday's opponents, Liverpool, but it will soon be directed towards Arsenal, a team whose ability is undoubted but whose nerve is unproven. Saturday night's leaders have not won a trophy since 2005 and Ferguson can be expected to remind them of that as the winning post nears.
It is true that many of Arsenal's young squad have not been in this position before, and that they now have also to deal with a Champions League campaign that is peaking prematurely with the Barcelona tie. There were indications at the Emirates that the impending quarter-final was preoccupying minds.
Yet it is wrong to regard Arsenal as a wide-eyed band of naifs. Gaël Clichy played 12 games in the Invincibles' title triumph, William Gallas won back-to-back titles with Chelsea while Andrei Arshavin (Zenit St Peterbsurg), Tomas Rosicky (Sparta Prague and Borussia Dortmund) and Eduardo (Dinamo Zagreb) have won championships overseas.
Then there are the two veterans, Sol Campbell and Mikaël Silvestre, combined age, 67, combined Premier League championship medals, six. Neither would claim to be the players they were, neither start in Arsène Wenger's first-choice XI, but their dressing-room presence is telling. "They have been there before," said Wenger, "the team listen to them."
Campbell should have been dismissed at Hull last week and risked dismissal with one challenge here. He looks off the pace, hardly surprising given his lack of top-class action in the last year. Yet his presence told when Thomas Vermaelen was harshly dismissed for making mild contact with Guillermo Franco shortly before the break. Alex Song moved back and, guided by Campbell, was as impressive in defence as he had been in midfield. Campbell versus Messi may still be an encounter to have most Arsenal fans waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat but the former England defender's value to the collective should not be under-estimated.
The contribution of Fabregas never is, but the focus on the creative aspects of his game obscures another element. The Arsenal captain is as competitive as any and it was that feature which ultimately ensured Arsenal put away an anaemic West Ham. The Spaniard, seizing on Jonathan Spector's poor first touch, won a 40-60 tackle in midfield, exchanged passes with Emmanuel Eboué, then drew a handball from Matthew Upson. Unlike Alessandro Diamanti, after Franco's tumble, Fabregas put his spot-kick away.
Afterwards the former Barça youth player was one man happy to discuss the B-word. "It is very exciting. The boys are really looking forward to it. We are going to play against the best team in Europe, probably in the world," he said. But, Fabregas stressed, "We are only thinking about Birmingham [Arsenal's next opponents]. There is a lot of time to think about Barcelona. Our first priority is Birmingham and that it is the sign of champions, taking things game-by-game."
Arsenal had started at a rush, scoring through Denilson, but gradually eased up. Fortunately for them a West Ham team lacking drive and belief in Scott Parker's absence could not take advantage, even after Vermaelen's exit. Carlton Cole did hit the post, after for once exposing Song, but for the most part it was the 11 men who seemed outnumbered.
Parker, said Gianfranco Zola, had a "tight muscle". Maybe, but it conveniently meant he did not risk the booking that would have ruled him out of this week's critical matches with Wolves and Stoke.
In such matches will the Hammers', and Zola's, immediate future be decided. In what sounded a coded message to the club's new owners, he said: "I am not pleased at where we are, but in these moments you have to keep your composure. You have to do the right things and not get emotional because you don't improve the situation."
Arsenal (4-2-1-3): Almunia; Eboue, Campbell, Vermaelen, Clichy; Song, Denilson; Fabregas; Nasri (Sagna, 75), Bendtner (Diaby, 57), Arshavin (Eduardo, 84). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Rosicky, Walcott, Silvestre.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Green; Spector, Tomkins, Upson, Daprela; Diamanti, Behrami, Kovac (Noble, 75), Stanislas; Franco (Cole, 57), Mido (McCarthy, 75). Substitutes not used: Stech (gk), Ilan, Ilunga, Spence.
Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire).
Booked: Arsenal Campbell. West Ham Diamanti, Kovac, Upson, Daprela. Sent-off: Arsenal Vermaelen.
Man of the match: Song.
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