By Rob Kelly
"I remember when I arrived in England and Leicester were a force in the Premier League. They disappeared for quite a long time but they've come back and that shows you that clubs never die when they have the potential and work well.” - Arsène Wenger
THE SET UP
The tests just keep on coming for Arsenal - and they just keep on meeting them head on. The season may still be in its infancy, but based on what we have seen so far the signs are good for the months ahead. For while they have lacked their usual attacking fluency up until this point, they have more than made up it for in defensive grit, heart and backbone.
Having launched that spectacular comeback at Everton last weekend, Arsène Wenger’s side then had to survive a nerve-shredding finale to their Champions League play-off against Besiktas on Wednesday night. Down to 10 men for the final 15 minutes following Mathieu Debuchy’s red card, the Gunners dug deep into their reserves and fronted it out.
It was a display that spoke volumes about their character. When everyone around them at a tense Emirates Stadium seemed to be losing their heads, they kept theirs. All that mattered was qualification - but when you see that sort of togetherness, it only serves to emphasise that this team has the substance that marks out the very best sides.
“It was extremely tough because you know that as long as you don't kill the game off and can’t score that second goal and, on top of that, are down to 10 men, you will be dominated in the last 10 minutes,” Wenger said. “The ball was going in the box [continuously] and you can pay for any single mistake. When you envisage the consequences it has, the tension was massive. There's a relief there that we qualified, because we know that was one of the goals of the season.”
Now, with Champions League football secured once more, attention turns back to domestic action and another searching examination - this time at the King Power Stadium.
Arsenal have happy memories of away days at Leicester City. They are unbeaten in their past eight visits there, while this week marked the 17th anniversary of Dennis Bergkamp’s remarkable treble in a 3-3 draw at Filbert Street - a game which featured one of Wenger’s all-time favourite strikes.
“It was one of the best hat-tricks - and certainly one of the best goals - I've seen,” he said of the third goal. “It is absolutely a masterpiece of intelligence, technical quality and finishing. On the night, Dennis scored one of his greatest goals.”
|Arsenal: Arteta (thigh), Gnabry (knee) Gibbs (hamstring), Sanogo (hamstring), Ospina (thigh), Walcott (knee), Giroud (tibia)
Leicester: James (shin), Upson (foot)
This time it is likely to be another prodigiously-talented foreign import leading the line - Alexis Sanchez. The Chile international scored his first goal for the club against Besiktas during a typically high-energy display, and he is fast becoming a favourite with the fans. Olivier Giroud’s foot injury may fast-track his conversion into the central striker role, but Wenger is convinced that the 25-year-old has all the attributes to make it a success.
“He has many qualities to lead the line,” he said. “He is first of all brave, he is strong in the challenge - which you wouldn't expect when you look at his size - he's very quick and very mobile as well. He's a real fighter and once his link play and runs get better, he can be very good in this role.”
The manager has also been encouraged by the number of chances his side produced in both the final 20 minutes at Everton and against Besiktas. It all points to a team that is clicking into gear after a pre-season disrupted by the World Cup.
“That's the positive of Wednesday night,” Wenger said. “We looked powerful going forward, we looked mobile. The negative is that we couldn't transform our chances into goals. But that's the easiest [thing] to improve. We created chances - you cannot do that in training but in training you can work a lot on the finishing and improve that.”
This will be the first time the two sides have met since May 15, 2004 - a date that will live long in the memory of Arsenal fans. It was the final day of the Invincibles season and Leicester did their best to spoil the Highbury party by snatching a shock lead before goals from Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira helped seal the Gunners’ place in history.
Now the newly-promoted side will pose a fresh challenge for Wenger’s side, but the manager has been impressed with what he has seen from them in their opening two games of the Premier League season. “They dominated the [Championship] last year and they've just come out of a very strong performance against Chelsea,” he said.
It is a tough proposal for us because they also drew 2-2 against Everton at home and we need a great performance againArsène Wenger
“It is a tough proposal for us because they also drew 2-2 against Everton at home and we need a great performance again. Hopefully we have recovered from our game against Besiktas and can focus on the Premier League, because that's one of the important targets of the season.”
Last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge could have been all so different for Leicester had David Nugent taken a one-on-one when the game was goalless. Wenger says that is one of the differences between the Championship and the Premier League - you have to take those openings.
“What is for sure is you have less chances. I had before a striker who I bought from Italy and every time he missed a chance in training, he was absolutely mad,” he said. “I said 'calm down' and he said that he had played for eight years in Italy and had one, maximum two chances per game, and that if he missed one, his game was over. That's a little bit [similar] to the Premier League. You do not get 10 chances. You do not get five. You get one or two and you have to put them away.”
The same applies to Arsenal. Having spurned a number of opportunities against Besiktas, the manager will want to see a more clinical edge to his side at the King Power Stadium. But against a defence that was the second tightest in the Championship last season, it is clear it will be no easy task.
It is a case of so far, so good for Arsenal as we edge nearer to the first international break of the season. But while Wenger says that his assessment on his side’s start will depend on their result on Sunday, he is still pretty satisfied with his lot.
His team have hit their primary target of reaching the Champions League group stage, while they have also taken four points out of six domestically - all while still trying to find their fluidity in attack.
But the signs are that it is coming - slowly but surely - and the boss will hope for more evidence of that this weekend. Should they succeed, he will surely be able to reflect on a fine opening to the new campaign.