By Richard Clarke
Arsenal must follow their manager’s lead and be bold on Boxing Day at Villa Park.
At his pre-match press conference, Arsène Wenger took his ever-buoyant confidence to a new level. He confirmed the four-month absence of Cesc Fabregas, arguably his side’s key player, and yet backed his remaining squad to come good this season. He then ventured that Villa would not be champions despite the fact they are top of the form table and three points closer to leaders Liverpool than his own side.
It was stirring stuff given that Arsenal will also be missing Emmanuel Adebayor at Aston Villa through suspension and a defeat could leave the Gunners facing a double-digit catch-up.
But the phrase “Arsène knows” has become a North London cliché for good reason. He was doubted at this point in the 1997/98 season and responded with a 'double'. Arsenal have been a Champions League side ever since.
For a man who craves consistency and quality, this is a massive badge of honour.
Wenger expects that Villa will push Arsenal’s top four credentials every bit as hard as Tottenham did in 2006, when Martin Jol’s side nearly nudged their neighbours into the Uefa Cup. But, he believes, that will be the limit of the Midland side’s achievement in the competition this season.
"I don't think Villa can win the title,” he said. “Mathematically they are in there but there are other teams who look to me better equipped.
“It's open. Villa are a threat to the top four but if you ask me if they can win the title, I say no. I can be wrong but that's my honest opinion.
“I feel some teams have bigger squads with more potential creatively and, in the longer term, that has an importance. Look at the offensive potential of Man United for example. They have Berbatov, Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo, Nani, Giggs and Anderson.
“When you go into March and April and you have two or three players out, they will still have players to come in who are at the top level.”
It is not even January yet but Arsenal’s squad is already stretched. Fabregas suffered a slight rupture to his medial knee ligaments and is unlikely to be involved before late March. Theo Walcott (shoulder) is not back until February, Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) is due in March “at the earliest” while Eduardo is fit but will need at least another Reserve game before he can be considered.
However, thankfully, Kolo Toure (calf) and Nicklas Bendtner (knee) will be back for a Boxing Day game that has taken on ever increasing importance.
Before last Sunday’s draw with Liverpool, Arsenal’s season was being propped up by victories over fellow Big Four members. Given that Martin O’Neill’s side have pooped the exclusivity of this particular party, perhaps this fixture should be deemed just as important.
Villa gave their RSVP with a stunning and deserved 2-0 win at Emirates Stadium back on November 15. It was the start of run that brought 14 points out of a possible 18 and saw them rise to third. That said, their overall record suggests their game is more suited to fixtures away from Villa Park. It is something Wenger has noted.
“They are a team who play mainly on the break,” said the manager. “If you look at the passing of Villa compared to the other teams in the top four they go more for defending well and breaking quickly. So we have to try to dominate the game and stop them getting at us on the break because they did that very well at the Emirates.
“But overall I am positive," he concluded. "I believe we can show [our character] in the next two or three weeks. Of course we miss a quality player like Fabregas but we are still strong enough to compensate and find a different way to be efficient. The eye of Cesc will be missed but we have to work harder, defend better and find a way to be efficient in a different way.”
And a bold way at that.
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