By Richard Clarke
“We are in a very interesting situation where we are fighting for the title and yet I am always sitting in a position where you force me to explain why we fail,” said a stony-faced Arsène Wenger at his press conference on Friday.
“For me it's not a comfortable situation because we are fighting in a period where the most important thing is to have belief in what we do and you keep saying 'why have you failed to win?'
“Let's just play for it first and have a go. For me it is important to give absolutely everything until the last game of the season and to be proud. Then, as I have said many times, if there has been somebody better we will have to accept that but, at the moment I don't accept that there is somebody better.”
Those three paragraphs sum up Arsenal’s position perfectly.
They themselves placed the high jump bar to an unprecedented level and have then been pilloried for knocking it off with their trailing leg as they leapt for gold.
Right now it looks like they must settle for a podium place in the main event but the competition is not over. During the past couple of months, Manchester United have provided Wenger’s men with ample opportunity to bridge the gap at the top – they did so in midweek at Newcastle.
Arsenal’s failure to take these chances only make their current predicament doubly frustrating but it does not make Sir Alex Ferguson’s side any stronger – only the position they occupy.
The midweek draws at St James Park and White Hart Lane helped push Chelsea up to second and gave them a scent of the title once more. The Stamford Bridge side have what Arsenal lack – momentum. But both have the opportunity to take points off Manchester United in direct confrontations in the final few games.
Arsenal’s comes next Sunday at Emirates Stadium. It is sandwiched between a couple of tough trips – Bolton this weekend and Stoke in a fortnight.
While the form, fortune and football fraternity are all doubting Wenger’s side right now, three straight wins would put them back in touching distance of the title.
That is why the manager wants the usual ‘blame game’ to start once the title race is over.
And that simply has not happened yet.
“I have no doubt at all we can win all five games,” said Wenger.
“We have a good basis because we are consistent. As you know, we have played 16 games without losing so what I feel is most important for us now is to keep the belief and to win.
“I am convinced that if we win our five games we will win the Premier League. But the target right now is just to win the next one so let’s focus and give absolutely everything to do that. This title will go to the most solid team, mentally. Not necessarily to anybody else. The mental part of the belief is the most important thing to have in the last five games.
“We have beaten Chelsea already and, in our plan, we have to beat Man United now for sure. But even then they can drop points [elsewhere] as well so let’s just win the next game when we go to Bolton.”
Abou Diaby (calf) is the only new absentee for the trip to the Reebok Stadium which Tomas Rosicky will also miss due to sickness. Thomas Vermaelen is in training and Lukasz Fabianski (shoulder) is out for the season. Those four are the extent of the injury list at the Club.
Crucially, Bolton will have Daniel Sturridge back in their side on Sunday. The striker has hit six goals in his eight Premier League games on loan from Chelsea and was sorely missed in the 5-0 defeat to Stoke in the FA Cup Semi-Final last weekend.
Owen Coyle’s side have had a highly-creditable campaign but that Wembley defeat will surely taint the memory and, perhaps, their end-of-season form. But they have won their last four games at home keeping clean sheets in three of them. Arsenal will not presume weakness.
“Bolton have done very well,” said Wenger. “They have just had a massive disappointment, certainly but overall they have been one of the teams above expectations.
“They would have been thinking about going to the Cup Final and the disappointment must be huge for them. How they will respond I don't know but we have to focus on our own performance in a game of this stature.”
Arsenal are unbeaten in 2011 but have drawn five of their last six games. It was a similar run of stalemates that cost them the title in 2008 when they were leading the table well into March. The only difference this time is that they had most of those games under control.
Earlier in the week, Robin van Persie called their failure to hold on to a lead “almost criminal”. Wenger both disagrees and sympathises.
“I can accept that he feels that way but it is not criminal,” said the manager. “However I use that word sometimes as well. It's how he feels because he is committed to the Club and the team.
“And certainly it is difficult to comprehend. But I think it's a little bit through a desire to do well. What happened to us in the Carling Cup Final was not quality, just nerves, and it happened again against Tottenham and Liverpool.”
Forgive me for donning the rose-tinted spectacles but perhaps that is where the general perception of Arsenal actually may help the team this weekend.
The wider football world feels the team have blown their title chances so maybe the shackles can come off and the early season away form can return.
Either way, Arsenal cannot be discounted just yet. While the expectations have been extinguished for now, at least the hope remains.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