By Richard Clarke
Sunday’s FA Cup tie at Cardiff is a double-edged sword for Arsène Wenger.
There is the obvious danger. A tough, talented lower league side backed by a boisterous home crowd in a tight hostile ground. But the other concern for the Arsenal manager is that a poor performance or, whisper it quietly, a defeat would blast a gaping hole in Wenger’s recent rebuilding work.
Since Christmas, the Frenchman has seen his side close the gap on the top team in the Premier League. Perhaps this is more down to the profligacy of Liverpool and Chelsea than the progress of Arsenal while, in addition, it must be said that Manchester United still look ominously efficient. However Wenger’s side are at least reaping reward for their efforts.
Six points is sizeable but achievable. Double figures would have leave Arsenal pretty much concentrating on Europe, European qualification and the FA Cup.
Typically, Wenger argues that his side’s season is half-full rather than half-empty but he accepts question marks remain. And victory at Cardiff on Sunday will represent some sort of answer.
“We are not there yet and I can understand that people doubt us,” he said at Friday’s press conference. “We are more consistent now than we were at the start of the season and we have beaten all the big teams. Why should we not believe that we can come back?
“We are now four points behind Chelsea and with two minutes to go last week we were one point behind them, Manchester United as well. So why would we give up now?
“I take a distance with what people say because I believed when we weren’t winning that we would come back.
“That is why this game for me is not only a cup game but it is an alignment with a very important quality for us; showing that we put it in, in every single game we play.
“I ignore that it is a cup game. I just want to see another game where we come out and do the job.”
Wenger has promised to stick with this season’s FA Cup formula - eight or nine regular first-teamers with one or two squad players plus Lukasz Fabianski in goal.
Gael Clichy’s suspension suggests Kieran Gibbs may be handed his first start outside the Carling Cup at left back. But the return of William Gallas from a hamstring injury does give the manager the option of accommodating the French defender back on the portside and sticking with his central pairing of Kolo Toure and Johan Djourou. Aaron Ramsey will be in the squad against his old side but may not start.
The 18-year-old first came to prominence in the Bluebirds' run to the FA Cup Final last year. Since then they have also lost Chris Gunter to Spurs, Glenn Loovens to Celtic while Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has retired. However their overall strength has hardly been affected. Jay Bothroyd, a former Youth Cup winner with Arsenal, has taken the Dutchman’s role up front while Joe Ledley is attracting Premier League interest with his performances on the wing.
Cardiff come in to this game sixth in the Championship and having not lost in any competition since November 22.
“They are in a good position and that means they’ll be difficult to beat,” said Wenger. “They have a good midfield and are strong in attack with a former Arsenal player in there. They have a very dynamic midfield and so, in a cup game when you go away from home to a Championship club, we know what to expect.”
And certainly Ninian Park will be a factor. But according to Wenger, it may work in Arsenal’s favour.
“[The atmosphere] should help us to focus and prepare but not worry us because that would mean we are scared and we are not scared,” said Wenger.
“We know we’ll need full commitment. But we are a Premier League team at the top of the league.
“That’s why we want to show that when we go to these kinds of places that we can compete and let people know why we are where we are.”
* There will be a nice symmetry if Arsenal do win on Sunday. Cardiff were the last FA Cup visitors to Highbury when they lost 2-1 in January 2006. And an away victory would mean this is the last tie in this competition at Ninian Park. Cardiff move to a new stadium next season.
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