By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger believes his Arsenal side must take a mental leap off Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
The Frenchman travels to leaders Chelsea at the weekend with the bruises still evident from that crushing 3-1 defeat to Manchester United.
However, for Wenger, the physical issues arising from such a result are not the problem. It is the psychological side-effects which must be overcome.
Of course, Arsenal recovered quickly from their last major defeat, in the home game against Chelsea on November 30, and, despite a poor record against the top two this season, will finish the weekend a maximum of four points off the leading team if they win on Sunday.
But to do that Wenger argues his side have to fully believe they belong in the top bracket. After that defeat to Carlo Ancelotti’s side, Arsenal hauled themselves back into title contention with a ten-game unbeaten run in the Premier League.
However they were a shadow of that team at Emirates Stadium last Sunday.
Speaking ahead of the game, Wenger’s most acute frustration was knowing his side were not displaying anything like their real capabilities. The 60-year-old says if his youngsters truly believe they can beat the top two then they will not only do it but also kick-on to silverware.
“I know this team wants to do well,” he said. “But because they haven't won [games against Chelsea or Manchester United] yet they have made it harder in their head than it really is. When we get close to winning, we play with the handbrake.
“But I know the team is mentally strong and dedicated. I see them everyday and I wouldn’t defend them if they didn’t have the right attitude. But they do have to find that final part to win the big games.
“Last year, with the same team, we didn't really lose big games. Before we went to Manchester United in the Champions League we didn't lose a game between November and May. This year we have lost them but we have to bounce back quickly and show everyone how strong we are.
“I know how much the players need these kinds of wins to finish the development of the team.
“When you play at home in a big game you want to win. You end up frustrated because you know it’s not because the players don’t want it. It’s just because they miss the final push.”
Injury-wise, here are the certainties. Sol Campbell is back in the squad for the game but Eduardo (hamstring) and Carlos Vela (knee) are still out. Manuel Almunia retains his place in goal but Nicklas Bendtner is still not fit enough to start.
The solitary doubt is Abou Diaby, who has been out with a groin problem since the 4-2 win over Bolton on January 20.
“He has a chance of being in the squad at least,” said Wenger. “We could do with him.
“But what we have to analyse is if it's a gamble medically and whether it's worth the risk of a setback knowing we have to play Liverpool and then the Champions League the week after.”
Diaby’s involvement will be determined by a fitness test on Saturday.
While Arsenal are bottom of the ‘Big Four’ league this season, Chelsea have a 100 per cent record in their three games and are yet to concede a goal. Defensively, Ancelotti’s side have kept more clean sheets than any other side this season but they may have a little question mark at set-pieces. Of the 20 goals they have conceded this term, 15 have come that way.
In addition they face an Arsenal side who are the highest scorers in the Premier League and inflicted Chelsea’s last defeat at Stamford Bridge when they came from behind to win 2-1 on November 30, 2008.
That win came directly after back-to-back Premier League defeats to Aston Villa and Manchester City. A defeat that day, November 30, would have left Arsenal 13 points adrift of leaders Liverpool.
While scorelines in games between Arsenal and the top two this season suggest there is a significant gap, the table leaves you thinking there is less of a divide.
As strong as Chelsea clearly are, they have shown significant fallibility themselves. You only have to go back as far as Wednesday’s draw at lowly Hull for an example.
"I don't think Chelsea were distracted,” said Wenger. “Hull had a good game. And Chelsea had a difficult game at Burnley the previous Saturday.”
Didier Drogba got the visitors’ equaliser that night. The Ivorian may not be 100 per cent fresh after an arduous and disappointing Africa Cup of Nations but, with ten goals in his last nine games against Arsenal, he is clearly the dangerman.
Wenger will not count his side out of the title race even if Arsenal lose on Sunday. The Premier League title race has been too much of a rollercoaster for that.
However, should they repeat last season’s win, he argues that they could hold a significant advantage going into the final third of the season.
"We are in a situation where, if we are in contact coming out of these games, we will be in a very strong position,” said the
"Don't forget that if we are in a strong position after these games, we don't play Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool, Villa and Everton because we have played them all twice.
“Let everyone write us off. Being six points behind is not dramatic.
"The players always have that kind of fear, they analyse the difference a bit more. But you never know.
“We were 11 points behind Chelsea at the end of November, why should we give up even if we're nine behind?"
Hopefully it won’t come to that.
Indeed, if the difference from the leading team is only three or four points after Sunday then Arsenal will be right back in the title race.
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