By Richard Clarke
While Arsenal’s top-four fate lies in their own hands, Arsène Wenger will always feel confident of making the Champions League places.
Win, lose or draw against West Ham at Emirates Stadium on Saturday, the Frenchman’s side will stay anchored in fifth place. It will be classed a failure if they are still there at the end of the season but, with 15 games to go, Wenger remains utterly assured that they won’t be.
However the Arsenal manager seems to be swimming against an ever-increasing tide of public opinion. Nothing – not a nine-game unbeaten run nor that priceless point at Everton on Wednesday – can convince some that Aston Villa won’t be breaking the quiet quorum that has monopolised the Champions League places for the best part of a decade.
“We are in a job where we are dealing with people’s opinions every week,” admitted Wenger at Friday’s press conference.
“You can find 50 million opinions in England, that doesn’t mean they are right. I can give you opinions of people who said something two months ago but, in a few months, they will say completely the reverse.
“So what is important for us is that we do what we feel is right. We have to live with the opinions of people, that’s the interest of the game.
“We feel that our future depends on our performances and not on the opinions of people. That’s why we want to focus on the way we play.
“Everyone says Arsenal took only a point [from Goodison Park on Wednesday] but Everton are on a fantastic run and are maybe the best team in the league at the moment. That’s why I believe that the West Ham game is very important and we must just focus to do well.
“Remember one year [in 2006] we qualified in the last minute of the season basically. When Tottenham lost against West Ham on the final day of the season and we played Wigan at home. If they had won we would not have been in the top four. We are not there [in that situation] yet.”
Ironically Villa were the last side to beat Gianfranco Zola’s West Ham. Since then, the East End outfit have taken 13 points from a possible 15 in the Premier League. Famously, they were the first side to win at Emirates Stadium in April 2007 but since then they have neither scored nor taken a point against Arsenal.
Julian Faubert’s own goal and Emmanuel Adebyor’s late effort gave Wenger’s men a hard-fought 2-0 win at Upton Park in October. At the time, it only served to pile more pressure on Zola.
The little Italian may have been one of the most universally popular players ever to grace the Premier League but he was unproven and unheralded when he took the reigns from Alan Curbishley in September. Wenger has been impressed at the way the 42-year-old has since steered the supposedly cash-strapped club away from the rocks of relegation.
“Who didn’t like Zola in England for his quality as a player, and for his attitude as well?” said the Arsenal boss. “He started in a very difficult situation as a manager but he has had some ideas and he has stuck to them.
“I like that. When a guy starts in this job that’s what makes him successful.”
Wenger has vowed to keep faith with the same squad he took to Everton in midweek but may switch a couple of starters to freshen things up. His major call at Goodison Park was bringing back William Gallas for Kolo Toure alongside Johan Djourou at centre back.
The 59-year-old admits there remain concerns selecting the more experience pair in tandem however he stressed they are not mutually exclusive.
``I can play Gallas and Toure together,” said Wenger. “I don't do it in some games but I do in others. When the ball is in the air, it is a bit of a handicap and Johan Djourou is tall, 6ft 4ins.
“But now we have Diaby in midfield who can shield. So we are doing better in the air than six months ago.”
Sticking with centre halves, Arsenal were linked with a return for Matthew Upson late last year. Famously Wenger signed the Englishman from Luton 12 years ago when he had had just one substitute appearance to his name. A bright future was expected but only injuries and inconsistency followed. He left from Birmingham in 2003 and has found the best form of his career since arriving at Upton Park two seasons ago.
“I’ve always liked Matthew Upson,” said Wenger. “I have said I never wanted him to go. But he was at a stage where he wanted to play so I let him go at that time. He had two players in front of him.”
Every Arsenal fan probably knows how Upson felt. Right now Wenger’s side are in a queue of their own and, understandably impatience is building. However quality, experience, form and, yes, even a little fortune are on Wenger’s side at the moment.
While their recent run has not seen them haul in Aston Villa or Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have been pegged back.
That should not be forgotten.
If February continues January’s trend then Arsenal will soon be hot on the heels of two of the big four.
And that is something for the opinion-givers to think about.Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source