Pre-Match Report

Arsenal v Bolton Wanderers - Match preview

Emirates Stadium

By Richard Clarke

Despite suggestions to the contrary, Arsenal’s Premier League season has not yet seen its defining moment.

Most title-chasing campaigns of credibility have a turning point or two. The 1997/98 crown was forged in the fire of a dismal defeat to Blackburn in December and then rose to prominence with victory at Manchester United three months later. The ‘Invincibles’ season of 2003/04 was re-railed by a second-half comeback against Liverpool at Highbury on Good Friday. Meanwhile, a good-looking attempt in 2007/08 started to unravel amid infamy and injury at Birmingham in February.

It was thought that this season’s title bid would forever be defined by that 3-0 humbling against Chelsea on November 31. In the view of many, the divide on the day was accurately illustrated by the 11-point gap the defeat opened between the two sides in the Premier League standings.

However it seems that the table can lie.

Of course it is a vast overstatement to suggest a two-goal victory over relegation-threatened Bolton at Emirates Stadium this evening will measure up in anyway to those historic, definitive games.

But it would put Arsenal top of the Premier League for the first time since August 28.

“It is a good target,” Wenger told TV Online in the build-up. “But let’s first of all focus on winning the game, that is the most important thing. We are there to win.

“At the moment [going top] has not too much as a mathematical meaning. But it has a psychological meaning, yes. It shows we are there and will fight at the top of the table but mathematically it has not too much significance because it is a long way to go.

“It also shows that everybody wrote us off but we are back in it. That is a step we have definitely made.”

Denilson and Theo Walcott should be available after rib problems. Their return is timely given that Aaron Ramsey (thigh) and Samir Nasri (hamstring) were injured ahead of the 2-0 win at the Reebok Stadium on Sunday then Fran Merida damaged his ankle during it.

That victory demonstrated a robust efficiency that will seem ominous to the other title contenders. Bolton had enough pressure and chances to salvage a draw on Sunday while Everton so nearly snatched a win at Emirates Stadium the previous weekend. Tomas Rosicky’s last-minute equaliser felt like a winner and so maintained his side’s momentum. That gathered pace on Sunday and it will be lengthening its stride if Arsenal complete back-to-back Bolton wins tonight.

Not that Wenger is allowing his players familiarity to breed contentment.

“You would tend to think that [the hard work was done on Sunday],” he said. “But I believe in our intelligence and the rational part of my brain tells me that Bolton fought very hard and gave us a very difficult game.

“So let’s focus really to be on top on Wednesday. I feel if we are not completely 100 per cent focussed we will not win the game.

“It will be highly important for us to have a go and play without any handbrake. But also we must prepare to play at a high tempo and give absolutely everything for 90 minutes.
“To surprise them is difficult because everybody knows you cannot change too much the way we play football from one day to the next, so they will know us.

“But we will certainly play with a higher collective pace than we did on Sunday because we will be at home. Our fans will be behind us and being at home puts us in an even stronger position. Our fans can help us win matches.

“It is a little bit a special [situation] but we have a little psychological advantage from the first game so let’s take it.”

The outside world sees this game as a ‘gimme’. The only truly definitive moment that can come tonight is if Arsenal falter.

Their show of strength on Sunday would suggest that is highly unlikely. But this is the last game before that big, bad run that everyone identified long ago last summer when the fixtures were published.

You’d back a ‘defining moment’ to come in four straight games against top seven opponents. Not tonight.

But what Arsenal can do this evening is turn hope into anticipation. And if they are still leading the Premier League in mid-February then expectation will be the over-riding emotion.

It might not seem like it but tonight is actually the calm before the storm.

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