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By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger enters uncharted territory tonight.
Never in his 13-year tenure in North London has the Arsenal manager faced such a fearsome foursome within a fortnight.
This evening they travel to Aston Villa (currently 7th, Carling Cup Finalists). Then, on Sunday, they entertain Manchester United (1st, champions). The following weekend they go to Chelsea (3rd, title favourites). And finally they host Liverpool (5th, in remission after a stuttering campaign).
"I have never known a run of four League games as significant as these in all my time here," he admitted in his pre-match press conference. "Never. Not four on the trot.
"It is a real coincidence that we have games - one after the other - that are all decisive.
‘'If we win them all we are in a very strong position for sure, so let's start with the first one and ignore all the others for now.
‘'It is a great opportunity to send a message to the rest of the Premier League. We want to take it and I am very confident that we are in a good position. So let's go for it."
It was a good, solid rabble-rousing performance from a manager whose side should fear no-one right now. Arsenal have amassed seven wins and two draws from their last nine League games and Manchester United only overtook them at the top of the table over the weekend by virtue of playing an extra game. (Though, admittedly, Chelsea fans would say that Arsenal only usurped them last Wednesday for the same reason).
However the most notable facet of Arsenal's season so far, apart from that Christmas comeback, has been their relative success in the face of key defeats to title rivals.
Arsenal lost at Manchesters City and United early on the campaign when both were riding high then they were well-beaten by Chelsea at Emirates Stadium.
Wenger does have evidence that his side can rise to the occasion. Those 3-0 wins over Tottenham and Villa at Emirates Stadium along with that second-half smash-and-grab at Liverpool stand out as Exhibit A, B and C for the defence.
But then why put Arsenal's first 22 games on trial anyway?
They are in a very handy position and you don't HAVE to triumph in the Big Four battles to win the Premier League war. Only last year, Manchester United took the title by ‘doubling' all bar one of the teams in the bottom half of the table.
Yes, a terrible run in this quartet would see Arsenal all but written-off. Fortunately they have already been in that position already this season and now, as ever, Wenger is seeing opportunities where others see problems.
‘'I believe we are in a strong position despite having lost at Manchester City and Manchester United then Chelsea at home," he remarked. "So you can't say it is a make-or-break [series] because in this League a lot can happen.
"However if we win these games then we can really have a big hope. We are here despite having lost some games that we should not have lost.
"What is important now is our capability to focus on each game 100 per cent and to give 100 per cent. At the start of the season we said we would give absolutely everything in every game for the whole season, and I believe this team has respected that contract until now so we need to do the same again."
Nicklas Bendtner will return to the Arsenal squad at Villa after three months out with groin trouble. He will be joined on the bench by Samir Nasri, who has shaken off his hamstring injury earlier than expected. Bacary Sagna is still nursing a shoulder problem but will start. Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas also return after being given a timely breather at Stoke on Sunday.
These sides met exactly one month ago when they were level on points. That day a 27-minute, two-goal, second-half cameo from Cesc Fabregas separated the sides at a time when the game could have gone either way. The schism between the sides has become a chasm since. If Arsenal win on Wednesday they will be 15 points ahead of Martin O'Neill's outfit.
That encounter more than any other, including the win at Liverpool, elevated Arsenal to bona fide title contenders because it was the first time they really delivered under title pressure. The defeat also stunted Villa's growth into genuine title contenders themselves.
However they retain serious intentions about the fourth and final Champions League spot.
"I think they are contenders [for that], yes," agreed Wenger. "It wasn't easy at home but you never expect an easy game against Villa anyway. But we know we can beat them and they know it as well, don't worry.
"I always believe there are moments in the season where you have decisive wins. They're important for the belief in the team.
"The Villa game was important for us in that way. It gave us belief because we know we played in a strong, disciplined way. We want to do that again.
"Villa are well-organised, strong in the challenges, strong on counter-attack and very efficient up front. They have a spent a lot of money. But wisely, of course."
There was always a danger that being knocked out of the FA Cup at Stoke on Sunday could undermine Arsenal's momentum. In the past Wenger's side have struggled to recover from major blows when they are on a roll so, should they stumble this evening, the told-you-so's will be out in force.
The best way to prove Wenger's theory is to examine how his side cope in the final 15 minutes or so when, almost certainly, the game will be up for grabs.
Arsenal are defending an 11-year unbeaten run at Villa Park but most of them have been tight. Given that O'Neill's side have conceded fewer goals at home than any of the top six, you can only see it being similar this evening.
Towards the end of his press conference, Wenger was asked what points tally he wanted from these four games. Naturally he swerved away from a figure. Instead he just called for concentration on tonight's fixture.
It was that very notion which precipitated the defeat at Stoke on Sunday.
If Arsenal win this evening then the end will have surely justified the means.
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