By Richard Clarke
Arsenal’s journey back into title contention simply has to make a fruitful stop at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, according to Arsène Wenger.
The Frenchman is the epitome of optimism but, with his side 10 points adrift of leaders Chelsea, he is well aware the weekend game is a rare opportunity to make up real ground.
Arsenal’s only other direct confrontation with a title favourite saw them defy pre-match predictions and pull off the performance of the season to beat Manchester United 2-1 on November 8. However they have not picked up a Premier League point since then.
Sunday is not the last-chance saloon but, if they lose, Arsenal fans may need a swift, strong drink from a rose-tinted glass if they want to battle the bar-room braggadocios about their side’s title aspirations.
“We have been written off,” said Wenger quite simply at Friday’s press conference. “You cannot say when you are 10 points behind that we are favourites to win the title but you can say as well the only way we will get back into it is to believe we can.
“That’s why we want to go into this game on Sunday by believing we can win.
“We know that direct confrontations with top teams become vital when you are in our position.
“But first of all we have to go there with extreme desire, express our strong points and not hide.
“There is no team that is not vulnerable. None in the world. And we can play and win everywhere in the world.
“We have not to consider too much who we play against. We know Chelsea are a great side with a great players. But at the end of the day you beat them if you play at your best.”
The extent of Arsenal’s injury list has been overlooked in the furore involving the change of captain this week. Wenger was without nine first-teamers for both the defeat at Manchester City and the narrow win against Dynamo Kyiv. Despite the sideshow of Cesc Fabregas taking over the armband from William Gallas, the ringmaster was lacking his star attractions when the house lights went down.
Three of those are expected to return for Stamford Bridge on Sunday - Bacary Sagna (ankle), Emmanuel Adebayor (ankle), Samir Nasri (knee). However Abou Diaby (abdominal), Kolo Toure (calf), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Emmanuel Eboue (knee), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) Eduardo (ankle) are still out.
Chelsea may be top but they have their problems aswell. They face a nervy, but eminently winnable, final game against FC Cluj in order to progress in the Champions League. And domestically they are not playing that well at home, a record of three wins, three draws and one defeat is worse than the likes of Stoke.
However one reverse in 89 Premier League games at home still makes Stamford Bridge a fortress. Especially as Arsenal have just one win in their last 12 fixtures against the Blues.
On the face of it, a draw at the leaders is never a bad result but, while managers always baulk at the idea of a “must-win” game, Wenger also dismisses the idea of a “must-not lose” approach.
"You never consider a game like that,” he said. “'Must not lose’ is the best way to lose it.
“I don’t know if the title is over [if we get beaten]. But ideally I do not want to be 13 points behind Chelsea so let’s make it seven on Sunday night."
This fixture was pivotal last season. Having led the table for so long then wobbled following the dramatic draw at Birmingham, Wenger’s side seemed set for a revival when Bacary Sagna put them in front just before the hour. However Didier Drogba’s late double saw Arsenal defeated and drop to third for the first time in seven months. It was where they would stay.
“Last year was special circumstances for us because we were really unlucky in the final part of the season,” said Wenger. “Maybe this year will be the opposite where we can come back stronger after a not so good start.
“I believe in this team and we have a good opportunity to show it on Sunday.
“If you play against a direct opponent you not only have an opportunity to take three points but actually take three points away from them. If we beat a team at home and Chelsea beats a team at home we are still at the same distance away.
"So for us, with the gap we have, the biggest opportunity is to win against a direct opponent.
“Having beat Man United, I believe if we beat Chelsea we will go from strength to strength.”Copyright 2016 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