Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Arsenal v Hull City - Preview

By Richard Clarke

Hull’s visit to Arsenal last season was perhaps the defining game of the campaign for both sides.

Lightning struck twice at Emirates Stadium late on September 27 as Geovanni and Daniel Cousin turned the tide with wonder strikes. The Tigers lived up to their nickname with a comeback that had been chalked up at 500-1 by the in-game bookmakers after the home side had taken the lead just after half time.

It was only Arsenal’s second defeat in 60 matches at their new ground.

And it hurt.

The win gave Hull the confidence that they could truly compete in the club’s first ever top-flight season.

For the home side, it had the opposite effect of course. They had already been beaten at Fulham but losing to Premier League newcomers on their home turf was sobering.

You can argue both sides reverted to stereotype in the second half of the campaign. Hull suffered a horrible slump and only stayed up on the final day of the season. Arsenal ground out a 21-game unbeaten run and secured their usual Champions League spot.

However that Humberside humbling lingered in the memory. In fact you could argue it was still with Wenger when he spoke to the press ahead of the repeat fixture.

“It had a major impact on our belief because if we had won this game we were top of the League,” he said.

“Somewhere the players thought ‘if you cannot beat Hull, maybe we cannot win the League’. That was completely wrong, maybe, but it was the start of a bad period. Now we are at the start of a good period.”

That is true enough. Immediately after the draw at Burnley on Wednesday, Wenger declared himself unhappy with a tally of four points from that trip and the one to Liverpool a few days earlier. On Friday he seemed a little happier with their roadwork.

“I believe we have just had two difficult away games,” said the manager. “We beat Stoke at home then we played at Liverpool and Burnley in three days. It was very difficult but we came back with four points.

“Overall we have not lost any ground with our opponents, who played twice at home, and even gained on some. Really it’s been a very positive three days, so let’s take advantage. We have now a very tough home fixture and if we are strong at home I’m sure we’ll be in a very strong position at the end of January.”

On Friday, Wenger clarified that news he had hinted when speaking to TV Online on Thursday, Cesc Fabregas will miss “eight to ten days” with the hamstring strain he collected at Turf Moor. Denilson’s return from a back problem offers an immediate solution in midfield meanwhile Armand Traore should be back for Aston Villa.

At the moment Arsenal are operating with six to nine players out injured. However none of those absences will be missed as much as Hull miss Jimmy Bullard. The happy-go-lucky midfielder has pulled more than most as Phil Brown’s side have hauled themselves up from the foot of the table in recent months. It is testament to Bullard’s popularity that his knee injury was mourned by most of English football.

However the Hull management may not be viewed in the same way by the Emirates Stadium crowd. After the FA Cup Quarter-Final between the two sides last March, Fabregas was accused of spitting at Brian Horton, the Tigers assistant manager, in the tunnel. The Arsenal captain was exonerated of blame afterwards and, ahead of their return, Wenger was happy to let the matter rest there.

“We treated that problem with calmness and the video proved, in fact, that [accusation] was wrong,” he said. “I have not spoken with Phil Brown since then. But I have no personal problem with him. It was more with his assistant [Horton] that there was a problem against Fabregas. But that has been cleared so, I don't know why there should be any bad feeling.”

Saturday is the start of a key spell in Arsenal’s season. Between now and January 9 they have five Premier League games – four at home and the other at rock-bottom Portsmouth. Christmas is always capable of propelling a season upward but with four of the five teams in the bottom half of the table, you feel Wenger’s side simply have to make hay while the sun isn’t shining if they are to be serious title contenders down the stretch of the season. Certainly someone will emerge from the chasing pack soon.

At the end of his press conference it was put to Wenger that the Big Four has become a de facto Big Two with a clump of teams chasing Chelsea and Manchester United.

"I have heard so many opinions of specialists,” sighed Wenger in reply. “And it's just an opinion. But I know one thing: it's about us and so let's focus on us.

"Aston Villa, for example, are a danger but not more than any other team. It’s so tight.”

Villa come to Emirates Stadium just after Christmas in a key encounter.

But last season’s game against Hull proved that pivotal game can occur anytime and against anyone.

In an unpredictable season, vigilance and consistency could be the difference.

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