By Richard Clarke
Only Bolton stand between Arsenal and the spell that could define their Premier League season.
Arsène Wenger takes his side to the Reebok Stadium on Sunday and, via a quirk of the football calendar, they entertain the same side at Emirates on Wednesday.
The following weekend Arsenal go to Stoke in the FA Cup. After that they will embark on a 15-day period that will see them play Aston Villa (a), Manchester United (h), Chelsea (a) and Liverpool (h).
Wenger has hauled his side back into title contention during December, if they are still up there on February 10, then the push for the honours is on.
“We know that for us there is a very sensitive period coming up,” said Wenger on Friday. “But let’s have these two Bolton games first.
“After that we have always bigger teams but for me it’s important we do well now. If we do well in those four games too then, if you look at our fixtures, we have a good road to the end.
“That’s why I believe it is important to go into that period with a good confidence level. So the next two games against Bolton and then Bolton are very important for us.”
The return of Cesc Fabregas after hamstring trouble could not be more timely. However the playmaker may be forced into a defensive midfield role this weekend because Alex Song (international duty) and, his deputy in that position, Denilson (rib) are out. On Friday, Aaron Ramsey picked up a muscular problem and is considered a sizeable doubt himself. They are the only three players to have started a Premier League game in the “Alex Song” position this season.
On the upside, Gael Clichy will be “minimum on the bench” for the first time since October 31 following back trouble. Nicklas Bendtner is still a fortnight away and Sol Campbell, should his move be completed, is not match-fit anyway.
Right now, Wenger does not see the Premier League as a three-horse race. His maths makes Man City and Tottenham contenders but suggests Liverpool and Villa may be too far adrift.
“At the moment Chelsea has 45 points so I think that all the teams who have over 36 can still hope,” he said. “But even now, in January, no team is completely out of anything in the League. You have all the teams to play for the Champions League places and all the teams to play not to go down. Usually you have six or seven teams who are not concerned by either end but this year it is not the case and that means every team fights for its life.”
Bolton are in that bracket. They average a point a game in their 18 fixtures so far and have recently slipped into the bottom three. However times are changing. The popular Owen Coyle has come into the replace Gary Megson, who rarely had the full backing of the Reebok Stadium crowd.
As Arsenal have sometimes found to their cost, Bolton have built their Premier League success on being a physical, direct side. Coyle, on the other hand, won admirers at Burnley for the passing game he employed.
The new manager makes his bow on Saturday – something that can sometimes lead to shock results.
“Every team is highly motivated against us so we are used to that,” said Wenger in response to that very question. “We don’t expect any weakness against Bolton. We just know if we play at our best we can win no matter what happens in Bolton. So we just focus on that.”
For that reason the manager refutes the idea of a Bolton bogey. “I believe historically we have struggled against teams when we didn’t play well,” he said. “That is the only history that is right in football. All the rest is just good for the statistics.
“When you're a good team and play well you can win everywhere in the world. But, at the same time, any team in the League is awkward at the moment.”
And Arsenal can’t afford any more awkward results right now. They head of steam they built up in December evaporated a little with the draw they only just about deserved last week against Everton.
Although it is hard to overlook the enemies just over the horizon the Premier League title race is horribly tight and wonderfully open.
Right now, you can’t see six points separating the top two in the final table yet that is what Arsenal’s double-header against Bolton is worth.
It should be all the motivation they need.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.