By Richard Clarke
All of a sudden, Arsenal’s season is shaping up.
A few weeks ago, Arsène Wenger seemed simply to be salvaging something from a campaign that had never quite recovered from a stuttering start.
However last Wednesday Arsenal reached the last eight of the Champions League and they can make the last four in the FA Cup if they beat Hull on Tuesday.
But the glint of silverware in the distance must not draw Wenger’s gaze from the minimum requirement of their season – a top four place.
If Arsenal beat Blackburn on Saturday at Emirates Stadium they will leapfrog Aston Villa into the leading quartet. It will be a mental marker for the North London side and an extra squeeze of pressure on the Midlanders ahead of their game with Tottenham on Sunday.
But with big games coming thick and fast, Wenger now has to balance his resources as best he can. It is the happiest headache a manager can have.
“We were highly focussed on the Champions League tie this week,” he said at Friday’s press conference. “But having got that out of the way we can look at the Premier League. It could be a highly important game for us tomorrow and we will play with energy don’t worry.
“We have been consistent in the Premier League for a long time now.
“We just want to transform our home draws into wins, and we have a good opportunity to do that tomorrow. I feel that if we are consistent, then we will be ahead of Villa at the end of the season.”
It does not really feel like it, and Wenger told Arsenal TV Online that he does not accept it, but, in fact, Arsenal DID relinquish their 17-game unbeaten run on Wednesday night.
However a 14-game Premier League sequence remains intact - albeit with eight draws. In fact the last three League fixtures at Emirates Stadium have pretty much defined the term ‘stalemate’. They have been scoreless and frustrating.
“Well there are two parts in that,” replied Wenger when the statistics were put to him. “First of all we are unbeaten and that is very, very positive. Of course, we are used to scoring goals and it was frustrating not to score. But I believe we are over that.
“I would like to keep the first part of that going [the unbeaten part] but add some goals. There is a lot more coming out from this side and we have a good opportunity to show that until the end of the season.”
The goal-scoring department is hardly helped by the loss of Eduardo. The Croatian striker tweaked his groin during extra-time in Rome. It is considered a “three or four day” job, according to Wenger. But, by way of compensation, Andrey Arshavin is back having been ineligible in midweek.
Undoubtedly, Wenger will rotate and perhaps the last type of side you need between two major cup ties is a big, burly Blackburn side managed by Sam Allardyce. While in charge of Bolton, his teams seemed to delight in jostling Arsenal’s artists out of their fluent side. But, for Wenger, Rovers movement rather than their muscle will influence which side he puts out.
“I’ll take more into account their style of play than the fact they are physical,” he said. “We can cope with the physical demands and we showed that on Wednesday night. It was a very physical game against Roma, the intensity and distances were very high but we can cope with that.
“It is more the fact Blackburn will go more direct that we have to take into consideration.”
The style has brought dividends. Seven points out of nine has hauled Rovers away from the drop zone and while Arsenal were taking their penalties at Roma on Wednesday, Allardyce’s side were celebrating a crucial 2-1 comeback at Fulham.
Few would suggest the former Newcastle manager fashions pretty passing sides but they are highly effective. And clearly Wenger expects more of the same given his response when asked if Blackburn will try to frustrate his side on Saturday
“Understandably yes,” he said. “That is why I believe it is important that no matter what Blackburn do we dictate our game and dominate in the way we love to play football.
“Allardyce has done well. If you look at their team Blackburn have good players. Last year they had an exceptional season and an exceptional Santa Cruz. Unfortunately for them they lost something of Santa Cruz through injury. Last year he scored a high number of goals and it took them time to get back their balance.
But now they look to be settled again.”
Arsenal have no such luxury of course. Suddenly they are not prepared to 'settle' for anything anymore.
There are trophies on the horizon.
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