By Chris Harris
Everton away, Celtic away, Portsmouth home, Celtic home, Manchester United away, Manchester City away.
Arsenal’s opening six fixtures to a season have rarely - if ever - looked tougher. But hang on - at least Pompey is a home banker. Right?
Wrong. Arsene Wenger likes what he has seen from his team in the past week but he knows that the struggling south-coast club represent a potential pitfall.
Burnley’s shock midweek win over Manchester United was a reminder that the old cliché of ‘no easy games’ holds as true as ever in the Premier League. And last season’s home defeat against Hull City is fresh enough in the memory to ensure no complacency creeps into Arsenal’s performance this weekend.
Wenger’s number-crunching during the summer produced a number of telling stats but none more striking than Man United’s imperious home form. The champions dropped just seven points at Old Trafford all season and Arsenal will need to enjoy similar home comforts if they want to sustain a title challenge this time around. Rule No 1 is simple: don’t slip up against the so-called minnows.
“Last year if you look well we got a big blow against Hull at home because if we won that game we would have been top of the league,” recalled Wenger.
“On that day we didn’t do it and we never came back to the top of the league the whole season. We lost ground.
“I believe if you look at last season Arsenal and Liverpool on that front were a bit similar – too many draws at home. And too many draws at home loses you the championship.
“But I feel we have started well and we have shown some potential. I have seen in my team some ingredients that I like – a good team ethic, good quality of play. We have not played at home yet but considering we have started at Everton and Celtic we are happy of course to have two wins.”
Portsmouth are not exactly in freefall – they lost by the narrowest of margins against Fulham and Birmingham – but uncertainly reigns at Fratton Park.
The club’s ownership issues remain unresolved and a fire sale of players has left manager Paul Hart with few resources and, according to many observers, little chance of keeping Portsmouth out of the relegation zone.
Lassana Diarra, Jermain Defoe, Glen Johnson and Peter Crouch used to be the bedrock of the Pompey side but they now play as far afield as Madrid, Liverpool and North London.
Wenger sympathises with Hart but he insists that Pompey are not without hope.
“It is very difficult to lose your best players because you cannot offer them good contracts, that’s very difficult for a manager,” he said.
“I believe the first quality of a manager is to have good players. It is not enough but without that it’s an impossible task. It’s a needed condition for a good manager to work.
“When you lose your best players you lose a part of you as well. But I believe the club looks to have some problems more than the team. I saw their game at Birmingham and they had some good chances and played with spirit. I do not expect any weakness.”
Arsenal have half-a-dozen players sidelined for Saturday – Carlos Vela (ankle), Theo Walcott (back), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Samir Nasri (broken leg), Johan Djourou (knee) and Lukasz Fabianski (knee). But Eduardo could start after shrugging off the groin problem that forced his late withdrawal from the midweek win at Celtic.
Wenger can afford to shuffle his pack with a big squad at his disposal and a big week ahead - Celtic and Man United lie in wait after the weekend. But for now the Frenchman is looking no further than Saturday.
“We play at home and we know to be ambitious our home form will be vital. In our first home game of course we want to dictate the game the same way we did away from home,” he said.
Sixty-thousand fans at Emirates Stadium will expect nothing less.
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