By Richard Clarke
If last season taught us anything, it was that Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal should not be written off.
Twelve months ago, the Emirates Stadium side were not even tipped to finish in the top four let alone challenge for the title.
In fact, they would lead the table for most of the campaign and finish only four points adrift of champions Manchester United in the final reckoning.
This term, Arsenal have started well enough – two games, two wins, no goals conceded – yet they have hardly hit their familiar free-flowing groove. Consequently, Wenger’s men are again being dismissed as title contenders. Speaking ahead of the trip to Fulham on Saturday, the manager talked of the need to get in a central midfielder before the transfer window closes but, he argues, a solid opening to the season will be a more accurate indication of their ability to compete.
“We have just started the season and had a very difficult game last Saturday,” said Wenger. “Everybody has discounted us at the moment but one more player will not make a big difference for us.
“For me, what is very important is to start the season well, by qualifying for the Champions League and winning our first few games. Then if we need an addition we can still do it.
"I do not especially [like being discounted],” Wenger went on. “It doesn't take any special pressure off us because I feel we have to win trophies. The pressure is exactly the same. For me we are here to win the trophy.
"However I think there is more to come from my team this season. We have a structure in the team and a way of playing that is very efficient. We have mastered that well so I do not see why we should not set ourselves high targets."
Arsenal will only reach that potential with a fully-fit squad. They beat Twente with nine players out and West Brom with seven absentees. Gradually Wenger is regaining his players but there is still a hefty squad on the sidelines, including new signing Mikael Silvestre.
“Diaby, Rosicky and Fabregas are still not back,” said Wenger.
“Silvestre has a little knock and I don’t think he will be involved over the weekend. But Alex Song has returned and should be available after the Olympics.
“Philippe Senderos has an inflammation with his back. He should return soon, maybe not on Saturday but on Wednesday.
“Samir Nasri is likely to come back in [for Fulham]. He missed the international [in midweek] because they did not want to take a gamble on a friendly game and I feel they made the right decision.”
Fulham started the season in the worst possible way by allowing new-boys Hull City to come from behind to claim victory at the KC Stadium. That result flies in the face of general opinion on Roy Hodgson’s side.
Having pulled off an escapology act at the end of last season, they threw off their financial straitjacket over the summer to bring in a number of new signings. However the biggest coup, striker Andrew Johnson, is struggling with a thigh problem and may not figure.
“Fulham have a strong squad now,” admitted Wenger. “They look much more dangerous going forward than last year and it's a derby, too.
“For me our success in this game will be based upon how quickly we can focus again after international matches.”
And, in turn, perhaps Arsenal’s success in the entire campaign will be based on how they cope with the early-season fixtures.
It certainly helped them to defy the critics 12 months ago.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