By Richard Clarke
Some may think it’s goodbye and good riddance to 2008/09.
Despite some significant steps forward, it seems that history may judge this season harshly in terms of Arsenal Football Cub.
Fourth place in the Premier League was the minimum requirement and, despite a significant threat from Aston Villa, that was achieved comfortably. Semi-Finals in the FA Cup and particularly the Champions League are noteworthy too. However the manner of the eventual exit makes you want to forget Wenger’s men were ever involved.
Still, going into the last game of the season against Stoke on Sunday, the Frenchman himself remains buoyant. A weekful of rumour and innuendo over his future was swept aside with some cursory comments at the start of his press conference.
Once you dug down a little further, you could still find a defiantly optimistic manager. You sense that by 6pm on Sunday, season 2008/09 will be but a memory. From then on, nothing else will matter but season 2009/10.
“The problem is that we didn’t win the title and the Champions League,” Wenger said abruptly at the start of his press conference. “But at the moment the best game is played in England and you compare us with the other English teams.
“This year Man United won the title and are in the Final of the Champions League so our fans compare us with them.
“But Chelsea are a good side but they will not win either of those competitions. Neither will Liverpool. They are a big club and haven't won the League for 20 years.
“We have to accept that the competition is at a very high level. For example this year Liverpool have lost two games and will get 83 or 84 points but they will not win the League. Last year we made 83 points and in every other League in Europe we would have won it.
“But in football you have to accept that the competition is high and that a team is better than you. Man United have won the League at Old Trafford. But away from home, they have won one game against a top ten team.”
Arsenal’s Premier League record against the other “Big Four” clubs is reassuringly good. However, in the past month, they have lost season-defining games against Chelsea and Manchester United in the FA Cup and Champions League respectively.
They recovered somewhat to take home a goalless draw from Old Trafford last weekend. But the point had a heavy price – watching Manchester United lift the Premier League trophy. But if football is often about replying to adversity then Wenger is painting Sunday as the start of the revival.
“The game is very important,” he said. “As much as it was to show a great response at Man United. We have to show our quality, finish well and start well again next season. I personally believe that this team, considering the age of the whole squad, has done fantastically well since November.
“We were unlucky in one or two circumstances but we have consistency and quality. The job is not finished with this team. In fact it starts now.”
Lukasz Fabianski has recovered from his knee injury and retains his place in goal. Samir Nasri (knee) is the only absentee from Saturday’s draw at Manchester United however no-one is back. Emmanuel Adebayor (groin) is still missing.
If Stoke win at Emirates Stadium they will inflict on Arsenal the only home and away ‘double’ of the season. November’s bruising defeat at the Britannia Stadium was typical of the troubles facing Wenger’s side at the time. The 59-year-old says that was a different team, since then he has made changes and launched Arsenal 2.0.
“We lost the game at Stoke because we did not deal well with their strong points,” he said. “I believe on one or two occasions I saw tackles that were not quite clear but, on the day, they were well organised, defended very well and took advantage of their strengths – throw-ins their set-pieces.
“But we are ready now. What people don't realise is how much this team has improved. Since November we have lost one game in the League. Even this one game for me was more down to the disappointment of the Champions League exit than to the real quality. We could have won it because we had plenty of chances.
“In the Stoke game, we now have a good opportunity to show how much we have improved.”
It is also, in effect, the curtain-raiser for season 2009/10.
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