Pre-Match Report

Premier League: Hull City v Arsenal - Preview

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By Richard Clarke

A month ago Arsène Wenger's press conferences were themed around one central question - why, in the face of overwhelming recent evidence, did the Arsenal manager think his side could still be champions?

Therefore it was telling that before Saturday's trip to Humberside the Frenchman was asked exactly the opposite - "what can stop you winning the title now?"

"What can stop us is that we don't perform at our best," Wenger replied. "And you know Hull are a team that can play very well against anybody.

"People say we have easier fixtures than Chelsea and Man United because they play each other but, for example, Chelsea and Liverpool have lost at Wigan this season. It is like that in the Premier League.

"We have done exactly the opposite of last year. We have lost six games, four against Man United and Chelsea. That means, overall, we have been quite consistent against the other teams. For me that is down to the fact we have a bit more maturity. And it's important that we continue to achieve that consistency until the end of the season."

Wenger argues his side "just did not turn up" against their title rivals. The two other defeats were at Manchester City and Sunderland when both were riding high. In fact looking down the fixtures you can only pull out the draws at Burnley and West Ham as genuine slips against bottom-half sides.

If Arsenal continue that policy for the remaining nine fixtures they could well be champions.

Turning to Saturday, Sol Campbell is likely to recover after finishing the midweek win over Porto with cramp. Wenger was also positive that Bacary Sagna (ankle) and Tomas Rosicky would be OK too. Cesc Fabregas, however, needed "a miracle". Alex Song is suspended,

This is Arsenal's fifth fixture against Hull in the past two seasons. Many of them have been spiky.

"We have had tight games and the tension has been higher," said Wenger. "That is my only explanation.

"I have nothing against Phil Brown. I will shake his hand at the end certainly."

The Tigers announced their Premier League arrival by winning at Emirates Stadium 18 months ago but they tumbled down the table after that and only stayed up on the last day of the season.

This term, they have been in the mire all along. However 20 of their 24 points have come at home. Only a win is good enough for title-chasers and Hull have been beaten just three times at the KC Stadium this term.

Wenger's Arsenal have always been a momentum team. They are capable of stringing long runs together but can struggle to recover quickly after they are de-railed. If they do win the title, their last Premier League trip - the 3-1 win at Stoke - will be seen as pivotal. Aaron Ramsey's injury, Cesc Fabregas' penalty and Thomas Vermaelen's clincher led to an impromptu team huddle on the pitch at the final whistle. It is fast becoming a tradition and is the most obvious example of the togetherness the side require to haul themselves over the title line.

"We now have to take care of our spirit," said Wenger. "You lose it quickly and you gain it slow. There is a feeling the squad is together but everyone has to take responsibility for it. It is not natural and it is quickly lost.

"Every negative impact has a consequence on the spirit of the team. It is linked with belief and togetherness. It is all the same bag, the way it mixes. And of course the best way to take care of your spirit is to win the games.

"It was important for example that we won at Stoke, that we won at places where we used to have big problems.

"That is a sign that belief is in the team and that we can deal better with the physical side of the game."

In many ways, a ‘patchy' campaign is now working wonders for Arsenal. The manager is telling everyone his side were written off in pre-season, again in November after they lost to Chelsea and finally in February when they lost back-to-back games against their main title rivals. That has given Arsenal their own "bonus culture".

"For us the negative pressure of the season is that we could have been out of the top four and other clubs could have overtaken us," he said.

"Nobody expected us to be where we are today so that is a bonus. If you look at some statements from pre-season then some people did not expect us to be in the top eight. So why should we put unneeded pressure on our shoulders? Our one luxury is that we can take it in a positive way and use that to our advantage."

But then everything is encouraging for Arsenal right now. And nothing illustrated that better then when towards the end of his press conference, one journalist won the prize for most stupid question of the day.

"Would it bother you," he stumbled, "to win the title having been beaten home and away by your nearest rivals?"

"Frankly, no," replied Wenger, laughing.

I really should think before I talk next time.

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