By Richard Clarke
Forget the Champions League for now. Arsène Wenger feels this weekend could be decisive at the top of the Premier League table.
With just a quartet of games to go, England’s ‘big four’ are still jockeying for position. Leaders Manchester United are three points ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand while third-place Chelsea have a six-point advantage over Arsenal, though they do visit Emirates Stadium next week.
Three of those four clubs are in the middle of taught, fraught Champions League Semi-Finals. But, according to the Arsenal manager, this is not the time to take your eyes off the domestic prize.
“It is a significant weekend,” he said. “Three or four games before the end, usually that is the time for the final blow or the final hope. Usually the title or Champions League hopes are decided with three of four weekends to go.”
Victory at Portsmouth on Saturday will give Wenger the bare minimum he wanted from his season – a guaranteed spot in the top four.
However the Arsenal manager has long-since espoused the desire to finish third and avoid the shark-infested waters of the newly re-modelled Champions League Qualifying Round.
Yet, at the same time, his side will go into their European Semi-Final second leg at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday trailing, somehow, by a solitary goal.
A turnaround is eminently possible but the manager knows he cannot concede Saturday’s game in order to make it happen.
"I will build a strong team at Portsmouth,” he said. “I will try to accommodate both. I will try to give the players who need a breather, a rest but also put out a strong team.
“Sometimes it’s good to play players, sometimes it’s good to rest players but we will have a strong team and we want to win the game.
“When you are on the pitch you focus on the game. You live in the present, not next week. When top-level footballers play they are not somewhere else.
“I believe what is most important is not to rate our chances and how difficult it is. We have a Semi-Final at home with a good chance. We will go in with full belief and certainty. I believe we will do it."
Groin injuries have cost Arsenal the service of Eduardo, Mikael Silvestre and Robin van Persie on Saturday. The Croatian is almost certainly gone for the season, only the Dutchman has a chance of making Tuesday’s game – and even then it will be a late call. William Gallas (knee) also won’t play again this term and Gael Clichy (back) is out for at least another week.
It is catalogue of woe really. The only upside is the return of in-form Andrey Arshavin after he was ineligible in midweek.
Portsmouth are almost certain to stay up now. Paul Hart took over in February when they looked likely to drop and has transformed them into a team who concede few goals. As a result, they have lost just twice in his 10 games in charge - and both of those were against top-four teams.
“They are a side with experience at the back in Distin, Campbell and James,” said Wenger. “They are very focussed to defend. Mullins helps out defensively in midfield and they have been playing just Peter Crouch up front in recent games.”
Tough, committed, organised, backed by a vociferous crowd and virtually pressure-free, Portsmouth are just what Arsenal don’t need at the moment.
It means Wenger must juggle. His job over the next few days is to protect, prepare and motivate his side in equal measure.
“We need one win for fourth place,” the manager concluded. “And the sooner the better. We are 10 points ahead of the fifth place so in case they take 12 points we need a win and we want to do it quickly.
"Then we will have a real go against Manchester United and I believe we will go through.
“This is a difficult period but exciting. We have fought every hard to get into this position so we will not complain about it.
“As for me I am relishing it.”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