By Richard Clarke
The most troubling part of Arsenal’s match at Stoke last Saturday was the haunting memories it invoked.
As Aaron Ramsey lay stricken on the turf of the Britannia Stadium there was an eerie echo of the scene at St Andrews almost exactly two years earlier.
History portrayed that moment as the turning point of the campaign. It may do the same for last Saturday.
But this time the direction will be different.
In the opening minutes of the game at Birmingham on February 23, 2008, Eduardo broke and dislocated his ankle. Arsenal recovered, dominated, scored and looked set to extend their lead to eight points until a last-minute penalty saw the home side snatch an unlikely point.
That disappointment, multiplied by the emotion of the day, unhinged the leaders. They drew the following three games and finished four points adrift of champions Manchester United.
On February 27, 2010, Arsenal went to Stoke knowing their title credentials were under scrutiny. Chelsea’s defeat to Manchester City at lunchtime had given them the opportunity to close within three points of the leaders.
They conceded early but battled back manfully. They levelled, were then damaged and finished up elated as Cesc Fabregas struck home a last-minute penalty to clinch victory.
In one of the toughest fixtures of Arsenal’s run-in, they had shown bottle, fight and spirit in adversity.
Ahead of this weekend’s game with Burnley at Emirates Stadium, Wenger appreciated the similarity of the situations but threw his belief behind the distinctions.
“It is a much different position,” he said. “In fact I actually feel we are in the opposite position.
“I believe the team is much more united, the resolve is stronger also we chase [the title] and are not chased. We responded to the situation in a positive way on Saturday. It looks similar [to Birmingham] but it is in fact completely different.
“It was a hard-fought victory at Stoke,” he went on. “For us, it was vital and has put us in a good position for the rest of the season.
“I am sure the team has gained belief and determination from it. But of course it is wide open now and so it is down to us - how well we can prepare for every game and how much consistency we can produce.”
Andrey Arshavin (hamstring) Abou Diaby (knee) and Denilson (calf) return to the squad after injury. However Sol Campbell (groin) is out while William Gallas’ calf injury is ongoing. Expect Mikael Silvestre to partner Thomas Vermaelen at centre back.
Alex Song starts a two-game suspension and, of course, Ramsey will not be seen again this season.
His broken leg has oiled the wheels of the rolling sports news networks all week. Wenger’s post-match comments have been under the microscope since the game but, at Friday’s press conference, his was quick to redraw the imaginary battlelines that have seen a supposedly soft-hearted Arsenal side stack up against brutish British cloggers.
Wenger was asked if the coverage had annoyed him.
“Yes,” he replied, “but I can understand it. However if you play football do you like to be kicked? You say 'please kick me'? Nobody likes to be kicked.
"I have had physical players. I love committed football. Don't worry the player who jumps out of the tackle will get a rollocking from me. I like players who put their foot in, but it has to be from our players and the other players with a fair intention.
“For me the Aaron incident now gives us one more reason to [win the title] and I believe that is what the team did by responding in a situation like that on Saturday.”
Second-bottom Burnley have a paltry record away from Turf Moor - P14 W0 D1 L13. They have lost their last eight games on the record and have just one win in 16 matches overall. They also have the worst defensive record in the top flight.
Wenger will know a four-goal win will put his side top of the table at the final whistle. But on Friday, he was not prepared to be that greedy.
“For us three points are very important in tomorrow's game,” he said. “We play against a Burnley side that fights not to go down. They are a complete outsider tomorrow so it is important we are ready. I will take any victory tomorrow.
“We have a very good chance in the title race now and we are in a good position with Man United and Chelsea. It is down to how consistent we can be, how much we prepare for tomorrow's game and how much we turn up from the first minute until the 90th minute. All that will decide our championship.”
The points dropped post-Birmingham may have cost Arsenal the title two years ago. But, post Stoke, the fixtures open up. In the next month, Wenger’s men play four relegation-threatened sides and eighth-place Birmingham. When they kick off against Wolves on April 3 in the last game of that run, the Emirates Stadium crowd will be digesting the early kick-off that day – Manchester United v Chelsea.
“Well I don't know about that,” replied a deflecting Wenger when asked about his ‘easier’ run-in. “The experience we have from this year is that there are no easy games. What looks sometimes easy before the game becomes very difficult during the game.
“But,” he concluded, “I believe the key to our success now is being capable of focusing during every single game and penetrating ourselves with the idea that each could be a very tricky match.
“If we are capable of doing that we have a very good chance.”
*Arsenal will wear black arm-bands on Saturday in remembrance of Macclesfield manager Keith Alexander, who died this week.
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