By Richard Clarke
Five or six times a season, Arsenal go into a week that, so they say, “will decide the success of their campaign”.
This one, however, has the credentials to back it up.
Next Saturday Arsène Wenger’s side face Chelsea in the FA Cup Semi-Final, on Wednesday it is Villarreal in the Champions League Quarter-Final second leg and, before that, they go to Wigan in the Premier League this weekend.
Ask any fan for their priority and they will surely go for the trophies. The FA Cup is closer but the Champions League is more prestigious. While fourth place looks relatively assured, it is very much the consolation prize after a title bid that failed to materialise.
However Wenger sees it differently. For him the game at Wigan remains undoubtedly the biggest one of the week.
“Yes, the League remains the priority of the future,” said the manager at Thursday’s press conference.
“We want to be playing in the Champions League next year and you have always to take care of the future.
“But in life you have to look after both present and future. So the Champions League and FA Cup are the priority of the immediate aswell.”
The latter end of Arsenal’s 17-game unbeaten Premier League run has seen them steal a six-point advantage over fifth-place Villa. Wenger admits that fourth spot “is not done” as Martin O’Neill’s side have gone to Anfield and Old Trafford in their last two fixtures while Arsenal must play on both grounds in the final seven games of the season.
However at the same time the Frenchman is prepared to talk about third place as a realistic and worthwhile target.
“It is an open draw now [in the qualifiers if you finish fourth], you can get anybody,” said Wenger. “For us to finish third is a massive difference because the Champions League is guaranteed.
“At the moment our first target is to get away from Aston Villa as much as we can. And then we need to try and get closer to Chelsea and Liverpool because you never know.”
With a triple-pronged week ahead of him, Wenger could have done without the damage inflicted on his squad during the 1-1 draw at Villarreal on Tuesday. William Gallas is almost certainly out for the season after damaging his medial knee ligaments, Manuel Almunia (ankle) will miss the next three weeks and Gael Clichy (back) is sidelined for a fortnight.
Their respective replacements at the JJB Stadium are likely to be Johan Djourou, Lukasz Fabianski and Kieran Gibbs.
However Wenger has no such concerns going forward. Andrey Arshavin is back after being ineligible in midweek. So if Robin van Persie and Eduardo (both groin) pass fitness tests then Arsenal will have all their strikers and attacking midfielders fit with the exception of long-term absentee Tomas Rosicky.
At this stage of the season with so many big games in succession, it is crucial for a manager to be able to freshen his squad. Wenger feels he can do that because he has both fit-again players and developing young talent on his side.
“I rotate because sometimes the injury factor forces you to bring other players in,” he said.
“But as well the players have shown they can cope with it. So in the end you have a bigger squad than you did at the start of the season.
“For example what happened with the injuries to Fabregas, Adebayor and Rosicky is that some players came in and did very well. Theo Walcott was also injured for a long time so we can rotate. On top of all that we bought Arshavin so offensively we have solutions.”
Like the rest of the Premier League, Wenger rates Wigan as this season’s overachievers. They started the campaign brightly and even the sale of Emile Heskey and Wilson Palacios in January failed to dent their ambition. However three defeats in their last five games have now pretty much ended any hope of a Uefa Cup spot. But, without wishing to be condescending, that would have been a stupendous achievement. There are plenty of sides below them in the table with more money and bigger crowds. Wigan, however, have spent their campaign vying with Everton, West Ham and Manchester City. Not bad for a team who only entered the League 30 years ago.
Arsenal only squeezed past them 1-0 at Emirates Stadium back in December. And with Wigan Warriors Rugby League side having entertained local rivals St Helens on the same pitch on Thursday evening, the scene is set for a battling start to a pivotal week.
“The quicker we get away from Aston Villa the better it is for us,” said Wenger, “and we have a got an opportunity to do that at Wigan.
“For us it’s super important to keep the run going,” he concluded.
“I always believe that consistency is the real sign that we’ve improved. At the moment we are quite consistent so let’s keep that going.”
That goes for the rest of the week as well.
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