By Richard Clarke
While he admits the Premier League is his priority this week, Sunday’s FA Cup Third Round tie at West Ham is no afterthought for Arsène Wenger.
The Frenchman has hauled his side back into the title race during December thanks to 16 points from a possible 18. If Arsenal win Wednesday’s clash with currently managerless Bolton they will be just one point behind leaders Chelsea. With mid-table Everton arriving at Emirates Stadium on Saturday, Wenger knows his side are in prime position to test the resolution of the Stamford Bridge outfit, Manchester United and other contenders in the New Year.
However, despite that, he is not prepared to neglect the world’s oldest cup competition.
“We want to win this game, it is as simple as that,” said Wenger ahead of the trip to Upton Park. “We want to get into the Fourth Round and therefore we will just try to combine two things – to protect our other challenges and be competitive in the FA Cup.
“That's where my target lies, to combine all these challenges together without affecting the results of the team.
“Yes, the Premier League is always more important [than the FA Cup]. But we are looking after trophies in the eyes of the fans, so the Cup is important to me as well.
"However the Premier League is so hard that you want to take care of your position. And maybe West Ham are in a bit of a similar situation to us in that sense right now.”
That is true but, crucially, Gianfranco Zola’s side are juggling a relegation battle with a cup run. They also have an Arsenalesque injury list. Mark Noble, Scott Parker, Danny Gabbidon and Herita Ilunga are all struggling for Sunday’s game because of hamstring problems. Carlton Cole and Kieron Dyer are already out while Guillermo Franco is suspended.
Wenger has eight out himself and said that others in his squad were “on the edge” of picking up injuries at Portsmouth. Tomas Rosicky is likely to start after coming off the bench at Fratton Park meanwhile Wenger mentioned that Philippe Senderos (foot) may figure if he comes through a fitness test. It would be the Swiss international’s first game for the Club, outside the Carling Cup, in 19 months. You would fully expect William Gallas or Thomas Vermaelen to drop out if Senderos makes it.
However while Wenger admitted the FA Cup was certainly his third priority, he added that his team at Upton Park would not represent that of his fourth-ranked competition.
“I will have to rest some players because there were some knocks against Portsmouth [on Wednesday],” he said. “Bolton is a very important game for us, so we want to keep our momentum going.
“I will change some players that is for sure. But while the Carling Cup is, for us, exclusively for young players, the FA Cup is one to win.
“A Cup is a Cup and we want to do well. A season is judged on the overall achievement. People look to who has won the trophies but I look as well at how we have done and how consistently we have played.
“This team is enjoyable to watch but also to manage because they just want to win every game.”
Zola’s job may not be so enjoyable right now. West Ham are having a wretched season. The win over Portsmouth on Boxing Day and battling point at home to Chelsea has hauled them out of the relegation zone for now. However they have financial problems of their own and have struggled for any kind of consistency this term.
Their two-goal fightback in the League game with Arsenal at Upton Park on October 25 smacked of some backbone but you could forgive Zola for looking beyond Sunday as well. The following weekend they entertain Wolves in a classic relegation six-pointer.
“West Ham is a tricky game because they are a good side at home,” said Wenger. “I think maybe there is more pressure on Zola in the Premier League, because of West Ham’s position, and less on the FA Cup. I would think it’s more important that they keep their position in the League.”
The same is true of Arsenal of course. Having done their dirty work in December, Wenger will relish a real tilt at the title as the Premier League campaign enters its third quarter.
The manager does not have to really choose his priorities right now. A damning decision on the FA Cup need not be made until the end of February – when the Champions League returns.
That means, for now, Wenger is as up for the Cup as ever.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.