The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, has insisted his side are "better than at the start of the season" despite their collapse in the Premier League title race. The Gunners, 6-2 winners at Derby on Monday night, topped the table for six months of the campaign until a miserable run of four draws and a defeat saw their hopes of winning a first championship in four years slip away.
Wenger admits his side have paid dearly for a miserable March, during which they surrendered a healthy lead at the top of the table, dropping nine points out of a possible 15. He said: "I felt at the start of the season nobody expected us to do well. We started well and maybe when we came under pressure in March you could see that we did not have the experience to deal with that and I feel we have learnt a lot.
"Now that the pressure is gone we are back to our real level and I feel our real level is better than at the start of the season."
Wenger also said he believes his side were "one game away" from being champions this season. Mathematically, his side can still lift the title but they would need to claim six points from their two remaining games and rely on the unlikely outcome of both Manchester United and Chelsea losing one and drawing one of theirs.
Wenger insists his side would still have won the Premier League had they held on to their lead against the leaders United earlier this month. Emmanuel Adebayor put them ahead at Old Trafford but Sir Alex Ferguson's side hit back to win 2-1 with a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty and Owen Hargreaves' free-kick.
Wenger said: "I feel we were one game away in this championship. If we win at Old Trafford, we are champions. It's just one game, and in that game we were 1-0 up and we had two or three chances to score the second goal, so you cannot say we had a bad season. We have 77 points and we have won championships with 78."
His team never looked in trouble on Monday as they romped to a victory over Derby at Pride Park. The gulf in class was no better typified than in the shape of Adebayor, who scored a hat-trick in his 45-minute substitute appearance – making it two trebles against the Rams this season.
That took his tally to 30 goals for the season – and Wenger insists that the Togo international can get even better. "There is more in the locker than what he is doing at the moment, but how much I don't know," Wenger added. "If he repeats that year in, year out, that's a mark of class."
Wenger also admitted he would have been happy had the striker scored half of this season's goal tally. There was nothing particularly eye-catching about his first two goals, which were simple tap-ins from inside the six-yard box, but Adebayor showed considerable poise to claim the match ball with a tidy finish from an acute angle in added time.
Asked if he had expected the forward to reach the 30-goal mark, Wenger replied: "No, but I feel in this team you can score goals. You will always get good service, it is not only down to the strikers. Everybody tries to make life easier for the strikers.
"I think he took advantage of the work the team had done in the first half, it was easier. We know he can score goals, he has now scored 24 [in the league] but [Robin] van Persie played well and [Nicklas] Bendtner played well as well."
Both on target in the first half, their efforts sandwiched a rare strike from Derby's Jay McEveley. Van Persie's goal had all the hallmarks of his former Arsenal team-mate and fellow Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp as he chested Kolo Touré's floated pass and sent a ferocious volley beyond Roy Carroll in the Derby goal.
At that stage, a result still appeared within the Rams' grasp but Adebayor's three-goal salvo and brilliant curling effort from Theo Walcott ensured their winless streak was stretched to 30 League games.
The goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski has revealed he intends to establish himself as No 1 at Arsenal next season. The Pole made his first League start at Pride Park and insisted that he has no intention of handing the jersey back again. He said: "I am not here just to be the second goalkeeper, I want to be the main goalkeeper. Manuel [Almunia] and Jens [Lehmann] are fine goalkeepers and we all get on well, but I will be fighting to be ahead of them."
Time is running out for out-of-contract midfielder Mathieu Flamini to confirm whether he plans to sign a new deal. The French midfielder, a reported Juventus target, has been given a deadline of the end of the month to give his answer but Wenger revealed he is yet to receive it. "I'm waiting for him to come back to me and tell me whether he's going," he said.
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