By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger is fully prepared for the fight ahead.
The Frenchman spent most of the press conference ahead of Sunday’s trip to Blackpool deflecting perceived criticism of his side.
The goalless draw against Blackburn at Emirates Stadium last Saturday was both costly and frustrating for everyone with an Arsenal allegiance.
A disjointed performance saw the home side drop two points and allowed Manchester United to go seven clear at the top of the Premier League, albeit having played a game more.
But Wenger refuses to accept the result nailed down the coffin lid on their campaign.
For example, when asked on Friday how he assessed this season, he retorted immediately: “The season is not over.”
His point was simple. Eight games represents 24 points and, in this title race especially, that is a massive margin.
Manchester United have shown their mettle this week by overturning West Ham at Upton Park and then Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But they have shown an unusual fallibility previously this season.
Yes, having gone five games without a win, Arsenal are at a low ebb right now but this is a season when presumption and prediction have often led to embarrassment. So Wenger is not going to give up now.
“I am very much up for a fight,” he said. “When you have a disappointing game, as we did, you are down because you want this club to win every single game.
“But the way we respond now until the end of the season is hugely important for us. We have worked so hard since the start that is very important we battle until the end.
“If there is a team that is better than us then we have to accept it. But I believe we do not have to be ashamed at the moment of what we have done.
“Rather, I have to be proud because if I took statements from all the people here at the start of the season we would not even be in the top five. Now it seems it is a scandal we are second.
“We have to accept it. People can change their minds but we have to fight. That’s what makes a top-level sportsman.”
Cesc Fabregas will be ready to start on Sunday having only been fit enough for the bench against Blackburn. Aaron Ramsey (groin) is back but Alex Song (knee), Bacary Sagna (knee) and Theo Walcott (ankle) may miss out.
After a superb start, Blackpool have been sliding down the table since the turn of the year and are now just one place above the drop zone. They have lost ten of their 14 games in 2011 and are in serious trouble of relegation.
“They have had great success because nobody expected them to be where they are,” said Wenger. “They are going through a difficult period now but overall they have played good football and have done very well.”
And, early on, it was success with style. Ian Holloway’s side were praised for their expansive approach and the manager retained that policy even after they were beaten 6-0 at Emirates Stadium back in August.
Like the town and their manager, Blackpool are entertainers at heart. No visiting side has kept a clean sheet in 14 Premier League matches at Bloomfield Road this season. However Wenger believes they will adopt a more circumspect attitude at the weekend.
“We expect every team to defend well against us,” he said. “Before the game everybody says if you don’t defend you will not touch the ball. So we expect even Blackpool to change their way.”
Once again, this is a massive game for Arsenal. The pressure is intense right now so they all are.
Wenger’s men are still unbeaten in the Premier League since that 1-0 reverse at Old Trafford in December and have kept a clean sheet in eight of their last 11 fixtures.
Despite perceived weakness at the back, their defensive record is better than Manchester United and, at the moment, it is draws, not defeats, that are sucking the life out of their title challenge.
All reasons why the manager feels over-criticised.
Of course, Wenger has broad shoulders and has been here before. Remember he built his reputation in England on that four-month unbeaten run that took Arsenal to the title in 1998. However before Christmas that year there had been rumblings of discontent at Highbury.
And, while it is frustrating to be ‘nearly men’ in terms of trophies, the team’s success is measured against the standards Wenger himself has set. He maintains his side IS coming together and, overall, his track record in this area is strong.
“It doesn't hurt me personally,” the 61-year-old said. “But it bothers me that the players do not get the recognition for what they have put in since the start of the season.
“You do not go to the Carling Cup Final or the Quarter-Final of the FA Cup or lose in the Champions League to Barcelona giving absolutely everything – and are the victim of some unbelievable decisions – by not fighting every day.
“I have been in football a long time and I can tell you these players have been absolutely outstanding from the first day of the season.
“And that is why I will fight until the last day of the season to reward these players.”
If the reward is going to come it may take that sort of effort.
But certainly this is no time to start throwing in the towel.
The fight for the title is not over. In fact it has only just begun.
And Arsène has his gloves on.Copyright 2013 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 4 Apr 2011