By Richard Clarke
Manchester United and Chelsea had better mind the gap. Arsène Wenger believes the Premier League trophy will hopefully be stopping at Arsenal station come May.
It was the Frenchman’s illustrious predecessor, Herbert Chapman, who persuaded the operators of London’s underground to change the name of the Club’s nearest tube stop from Gillespie Road back in 1932.
Three-quarters of a century later, Wenger used his first pre-match press conference of the 2008-09 season to persuade anyone and everyone that, having hauled themselves within touching distance of the top two last season, his young, relatively-inexperienced Arsenal side had developed the platform not just to challenge for the title this term but to win it.
“Look at the numbers,” he reasoned ahead of the home game with West Brom. “Two years ago we were over 20 points behind the leaders, last year we were four points behind. That means we made a significant move forward.
“A four-point gap after 38 games is down to one or two decisions in your favour, one or two injuries that you don’t have, one ball going in, instead of hitting the bar.
"We feel we were a fraction short. Now we want to show we can make up the four points that made the difference last year.
“This season I feel it will be more down to starting well and being more relaxed when it comes to the crunch point.
"Last year we were leading the Premier League due to a good start. So let's focus on the short-term goals and show later on that we've learned from when we dropped off last season.”
Getting players back to fitness will help. Arsenal won against Twente in midweek despite having nine players injured. Samir Nasri (knee/thigh) is now OK and Kolo Toure will be in the squad despite nagging concerns about his hip. However the list of absentees still reads: Philippe Senderos (hamstring), Kolo Toure (hip), Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Abou Diaby (thigh), Eduardo (leg), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Amaury Bischoff (groin) and Alex Song (Olympics participation).
It leaves Wenger likely to rely on youth once again. In Holland the combined age of his central midfield was younger than Jens Lehmann and the average age of the bench was 19 years six months. Saturday could see something similar.
But, according to the manager, old heads will be needed against last season's Championship winners.
"Usually the teams that come up give you a good game," said Wenger.
"We know West Brom will be up for it. Out of the three teams who just came up from the Championship, they have the most experience in the Premier League. But it is always our target to win the first match.”
Certainly, Tony Mowbray’s side will be a valid test. They are tough but talented. They will fight but play football.
Wenger argued that last season’s opening day comeback against Fulham fired his side’s title charge. Equally, a failure to win on Saturday will be seen as signs of frailty.
But then, even without that stack of injuries, Arsenal would still be accused of being too young to win the title.
“I don’t deny the experience issue people talk about,” conceded Wenger. “But I don’t think we lost the title last year due to lack of overall experience because the young players produced a great season.
“We lost as a unit because we didn’t have the experience of winning the title. Hopefully we have learnt from that now.
“Anyway I believe it is not just experience that wins the League, it is the talent and quality of your display.”
Over the next 10 months we will find out if he is right.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 31 Jul 2008