By Richard Clarke
It is just victory, not revenge, that will be sweet for Arsène Wenger on Saturday at Hull.
If there were seeds of doubt before Phil Brown’s side arrived at Emirates Stadium on September 27 then the green shoots of concern were clearly visible after the Tigers lived up to their nickname with a doughty 2-1 win.
That was Arsenal’s sixth Premier League game of the season. It was early of course, but the team had spent the previous five bouncing between first and second spot. Hull, however, forced them down to fourth and they have been in that vicinity ever since.
Let’s add some context here. The defeat was only Wenger’s second ever at Emirates Stadium and it was only the second time in five years that a promoted team had beaten a Big Four opponent on their own ground.
Geovanni’s thunderbolt and Daniel Cousin’s flashing header will certainly make the Premier League highlight reels in May wherever Hull finish. Before December it was looking like Hull would be top 10, maybe even pushing for Europe, however they have since dropped off.
Hull’s first nine games brought them 20 points, their last 12 have yielded seven. Having had eyes on the top six, they may have been peering over their shoulder at the bottom three recently. That’s why Brown brought in Kevin Kilbane, Manucho and Steve Finnan this week. Wenger however feels they have already built up a sufficient buffer to survive.
"They were a complete surprise package and took advantage of the fact that they started very well,” said Wenger.
"They began free of expectation, they had quality but now they have got a few knocks how will they continue?
“The team has put the handbrake on a bit because the confidence is not exactly the same. But they have 27 points and you would still think that would be enough to get out of a relegation battle. I think four wins may be enough to get them out of it and they are high enough up the table.
“Overall though I feel any team can drop in this league. The difference between the teams is very small and you can quickly lose games.”
The Hull defeat was one of five reverses early on in the season. Since the last – at Man City on November 22 – Arsenal are unbeaten in seven games. Even though he does not proffer a sense of payback on Saturday, Wenger is still smarting from Hull’s September slapping.
"That defeat at Emirates was a big blow for us at the time because if we had won we would have been top of the League,” he said. “It was a massive disappointment. I feel on the day we were just not cautious enough. We were a bit too cavalier.
"But, also, as well as they played against us they had three shots on goal and scored twice. That cannot last for 38 games.
“So on Saturday we just want to continue our progress, it is not about revenge at all. We feel we are on a good run so we want to be quiet and focus.”
A spate of injuries and the desire to rebuild with clean sheets have clipped the wings of Wenger’s free-flowing style in recent weeks. Only Alex Song (thigh) is likely to return on Saturday as Arsenal go to the KC Stadium for the first time. William Gallas (hamstring), Mikael Silvestre (thigh), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Cesc Fabregas (knee) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring tendon) are all still out.
Arsenal’s recent revival has been put together upon a foundation of home wins. Now they must venture away. They go to Hull, Everton and Tottenham in their next three Premier League away games. With a trip to Cardiff City in the FA Cup Fourth Round as well. Then there are bigger guns further down the line. Perhaps that is why Wenger freely admits their season will now be defined on the road - starting at Hull.
“Certainly,” he said when asked the question directly, “because we go to Liverpool, we go to Manchester United.
“But I am confident we look solid and have a team who can make results away from home.
“This is different kind of test for us now,” he concluded. “We were 2-0 up at Villa and 1-0 up at Middlesbrough, so let’s just continue that because the teams will not always come back on us.”
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