By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger is hoping that the serenity of the underdog can help his side to a successful Premier League campaign.
Admittedly the notion of ‘success’ is an open one for Arsenal on the eve of the big kick-off. To some, Wenger should be applauded for simply maintaining his Club’s membership of the Big Four against moneyed mite of Manchester City. But the man himself will accept nothing but first place.
He even has an equation for being ‘in the mix’. Wenger says 25 wins and/or 82 points should make Arsenal serious contenders.
The first week could tell us much. Despite the threat of Aston Villa, it was Everton who finished fifth last season and, if consistency is what you value, then they will be the most likely Big Four party-crashers once again this term. A trip to Goodison Park on opening day is overflowing with significance.
Then, on Tuesday, Arsenal travel to Celtic in the Champions League Play-Off round first leg. Again it is an intense but winnable game. And again the lofty, hard-fought status of the Emirates Stadium side will be at stake.
Even Wenger accepts it is the most crucial week of the season. But, for now at least, Premier League matters – and by that he means winning it - are uppermost in his mind.
“We are doing it in a different way and so it would be very, very satisfying [to finish top] because there is long and hard work behind it - physical work, mental work - and it takes a lot of strength to push that through,” he said. “But I believe we have a very good chance.
“The opponents - Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea - you do not know how strong they will be. But, in the Premier League, the target is to always be over 82 points if you want to win the title. In a League of this quality you need to win at least 25 games.”
Of course the hopes and expectations were similarly lofty 12 months ago. Arsenal were coming into that season as real prospects having, perhaps surprisingly, finished four points off the champions the season before. However five defeats in their first 14 games ended their title ambitions. The subsequent run of 21 matches without defeat was worthy but, in all truth, it was a rescue mission.
“I look at last year’s season as a product of bad circumstances,” said Wenger. “We had a bad start and that is why maybe we feel a little bit under pressure to start well this time because we know that last year after 14 games we had lost five and that was too many.
“At the moment, nobody looks at us as a potential fighter for the title. Maybe that should not add too much pressure on our shoulders but it can. Basically there is a demand there to show how good we are.
“So I believe that we have to keep serene, focused and not put unneeded pressure on our shoulders. We should just focus on how we want to play.”
Midfielder Abou Diaby (groin) was ruled out on Friday. He joins Theo Walcott (back) on the short-term injury list and both could be back for the Celtic tie. Samir Nasri (broken leg), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Johan Djourou (knee) and Lukasz Fabianski (knee) will be absent for longer.
Neither side have been overactive in the transfer market so far. Arsenal are set to debut Thomas Vermaelen on Saturday meanwhile David Moyes’ main business has been to retain Jo on loan from Manchester City.
“We have the advantage of stability,” said Wenger. “We are not in the position where we have too much worry about fitting in the players. We know how we want to play and the players know how we want to play. I believe that can be an advantage. Unfortunately Everton have the same advantage.
“Overall I feel this is an important game for us,” he went on. “And we are conscious it is the most crucial week of the season.”
The final question of Wenger’s press conference enquired what he expected by the end of the week. “I expect by the end of next week to be preparing for Portsmouth and the second leg of the Celtic tie,” he smiled, “and after that I hope I will be a very happy man.”
If Wenger happy, you can assume the rest of us will be too.
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