By Richard Clarke
“I believe we can still win the title this year,” said a redoubtable Arsène Wenger on Tuesday. “But at the moment it's certainly not realistic so let's focus on the short-term and try to win our next game. Let's just win tomorrow and we'll see.”
Despite the vocal optimism, words have failed the Frenchman in recent weeks. So much so that ahead of the visit of Liverpool tonight he was suggesting that he best shut up all together.
The Arsenal manager feels his post-match comments in the past fortnight have been sliced, diced and thrown back at him.
Wenger’s media work at Aston Villa and Chelsea have made almost as many headlines as the matches themselves. In between came the defeat to Manchester United which, perversely, was followed by the most self-critical press conference of all the three games.
No-one, least of all the manager himself, is suggesting that one draw in this crucial period is enough for a title-chasing team. As a result, Arsenal entertain Rafa Benitez’s in-form side a full nine points off the pace.
But after Sunday’s disappointment at Stamford Bridge, Gael Clichy spoke of ‘digging in’ and Wenger also feels that entrenchment is the best policy to employ.
The manager says that every day he questions his actions but remains steadfast in his principles. One of those tenets is, of course, patience. However the 60-year-old accepts that does not ‘play’ well right now. Hence the compelling reason to stay quiet.
“I believe everybody at the top will drop points because they all play each other,” said Wenger. “We don't play them anymore and so it's down to how consistent we will be until the end of the season.
“It will be tight and we must get on a run now. But when you've lost two in a row you worry more about winning the next one and coming back to a winning habit. At the moment, that is my more immediate concern. So the future is this game.
“For me, the reaction from Sunday has been too much. It's almost better I shut up. But when I tell you I've seen a lot of positive signs in that game against Chelsea that show we are developing very well you could say 'I'd rather you shut up'.
“Maybe you're right but that's what I believe.
“We have gone for a policy where we need to be strong and patient. Sometimes we get knock-backs but still we must persist with it because it's the only way this football club can be run. I am patient with players because I believe if you take, say, our midfield today we're still very young considering the top level in Europe. We are 22, 23, 22, 22.
“It is still young but we are already capable of dominating games in midfield and so the basis is there. We have to transform that into winning trophies but we can only do it if we believe it. I know everybody is impatient. But my job is to be patient, to work and to allow people to think if I do the right things or the wrong things. It's part of my job to live with that.”
As ever, strikers headline the injury news. Eduardo is still out with the hamstring injury picked up at Aston Villa. He is expected back for the trip to Porto on Wednesday. Nicklas Bendtner is still not ready to start after recovering from a groin problem.
“I don't know about him,” said Wenger. “He had a good session on Monday so we'll see how he responds to that.
“I would love to [start him] but you can see he's not completely free in the way he runs so we have to see what we do.”
It was open season on Arsenal before they went to Anfield back on December 13. They had just lost to Chelsea, were 11 points behind and considered also-rans in the title race. The comeback victory turned the tide of their season to such an extent they were top by January 20.
However defeat also changed Liverpool. After it, they were written off for fourth place, Benitez was underfire and the club itself faced a blackballing from the ‘Big Four’. But in the following nine Premier League games their record has been W6 D2 L1.
Despite the revival, Liverpool’s away record is still patchy this season and Saturday will be the tenth anniversary of their last win at Arsenal. However their last four League games has seen Dirk Kuyt score and their defence keep a clean sheet. Clearly, they are a team on the rise.
Given Wenger’s current plight and Benitez’s past one, the former was asked if the latter had been treated unfairly.
“I’ve always had sympathy with him,” said the Frenchman. “But who cares about what is fair today and not fair? The same people who said you have to take the England armband off John Terry said the day after he’s fantastic because they won the game at the weekend.
“What is fair and unfair? You don’t want to know. But it’s part of our job and we live with that.”
Fair or unfair, logical or blinkered, football has only ever had one truth - victory. Lucky wins can be post-rationalised, unlucky defeats submerged to form the basis of more general criticism.
Arsenal played well at Chelsea without ever truly hurting them. It was a far from perfect performance but, at the same time, a whole heap better than the one against Manchester United and arguably more fluent than the draw at Villa.
Still, Arsenal’s awesome foursome of fixtures ends tonight and Wenger needs a win of any calibre.
At half time at Anfield, the manager used fighting words to turnaround his side.
Tonight he can stay silent throughout as long as it results in victory.
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