By Richard Clarke
It is perhaps wrong to try and pinpoint “the” turning point in a season. Each campaign has a number of junctions when a result or an incident caused a team’s fortunes to go one way or another.
In truth, there are always a number of turning points and, for Arsène Wenger, many of them last season came against Liverpool. Yes, Arsenal were left battered and defeated at Birmingham, Chelsea and Manchester United but, according to Arsène Wenger, those three Titanic games in seven days against Rafa Benitez' side put an indelible stain on his side’s progress.
It started with a draw at Emirates in the Champions League Quarter-Final on April 2 and another stalemate on April 5 in the Premier League all but ended Arsenal’s title hopes. However the second European game on April 8 was the most gut-wrenching. Abou Diaby gave the visitors the lead at Anfield and, though the home side came back to 2-1, Theo Walcott’s electric run in the final minutes set up Emmanuel Adebayor to score and hand Arsenal the advantage.
Almost immediately, Liverpool replied – but it was controversial. Kolo Toure was adjudged to have clipped Ryan Babel in the area, Steven Gerrard scored from the penalty spot. Babel’s fourth both confirmed the result and added to Arsenal’s sense of injustice.
A measure of retribution is available on Sunday when Benitez’ bouyant side ride into Emirates Stadium.
Liverpool lead the Premier League while Arsenal are eight points adrift and playing catch up after five early-season defeats. At his pre-match press conference on Friday, Wenger vowed to look forward yet when asked if Liverpool killed his dreams last season he could not help but reflect.
“Yes of course,” he replied. “I feel we were especially unlucky in the Premier League game [which] was in between the two Champions League ties.
“We tried to protect a little bit the Champions League game because we thought we could catch back in the title race.
“But we were very unlucky because in the last second of the Premier League game Alex Hleb has a fantastic chance to win the game in front of the keeper on his own. Then in the Champions League at home we had the penalty that was not given [when Kuyt appeared to haul back Hleb] and then the penalty [at Anfield] was a dive. Kolo Toure didn’t touch him but he did it well. I feel that in that period of time overall we suffered a lot of bad luck. That is part of the quality of the team to deal with that and not to allow it to happen.”
Samir Nasri is set to return on Sunday after his ankle injury but Kolo Toure (calf), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) and Theo Walcott (shoulder) are all out. There is also a major doubt surrounding Nicklas Bendtner (knee).
After those defeats to Fulham, Hull, Stoke, Manchester City and Villa, Wenger challenged his side to win the “confrontations” with their fellow title-chasers. So far, so good.
Without the wins over Manchester United and Chelsea, Wenger would have little upon which to base his optimism in the Premier League. That said, in four of the last five seasons the team that has topped the ‘Big Four’ table has won the title. The exception was 2006/07 when Arsenal had the best record of the quartet.
“I am confident that we can beat anybody,” said Wenger. “If we played Barcelona tomorrow I’m confident we can beat them. I believe that we were vulnerable at some stage to a different kind of game and we have rectified that. In the time coming up we can show that we can deal with that.
“[Our record against so-called lesser sides] firstly is a concentration problem and secondly because we face a different style of play; much longer and much more direct. It looks to me the main reasons. I believe we are more vulnerable to that type of play.
“But we know that, for us, the first step now is to get back into the race and to do that the important thing is for us to beat Liverpool.
“This game is an opportunity for us to catch them and we want to take it. With our position in the League, we know it is compulsory for us to beat the three other teams – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool
“And we want to continue our run on Sunday.”
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