By Richard Clarke
Arsenal's season may have taken a terminal dip on Wednesday but, for Arsène Wenger, the overall trend is upwards.
The Frenchman will approach these final four games with merely mathematical optimism. Effectively, leaders Chelsea have to drop seven of their last 12 points for Arsenal to finish champions. Whatever Wenger's side do at Wigan on Sunday, some will feel that their title bid is all but spent.
The 60-year-old stood, frantic and frustrated, on the touchline at White Hart Lane two days ago as it slowly dawned that nine months of improvement and development was likely to receive no tangible reward.
The fierce fire of that North London derby had barely begun to subside before people began raking over the coals of the campaign. The manager, however, remains resilient and defiant.
As often as critics remind him his side are now five years without a trophy, he tells them that top-four finishes should not be sniffed at and a decade at the latter end of the Champions League is an achievement few in Europe can match.
He also tends to points out that, last August, Arsenal were portrayed as the weaklings of the Big Four. A team whose status was under threat from the rise of Manchester City, Tottenham and others. It did not transpire.
This is a political period in England. Three days before the end of the Premier League season, the nation votes in a General Election. While the back pages are full of the title race, the front pages are starting to fill with polls, trends and policy pronouncements.
Wenger does not need to electioneer for his position, his record stands for itself. But ahead of the trip to the DW Stadium, he was campaigning strongly for his team.
"The curve [for us] is going up for sure," he said. "The others are coming down, that is for sure as well.
"Chelsea have six or seven players over 30-years-old. They will not go up. But of course Roman Abramovich can say in the summer ‘I buy seven players of 24' and you are in the race again. And Man City, they will be a challenge next season. They have a serious chequebook.
"But we could make 86 points this season and, in every year, that would give you a chance to win the title. So for me it is not an exceptional season in the Premier League it is just that the competition has been high.
"The future of our team lies in how well we can respond to big disappointments and that's a good opportunity on Sunday to show that. Our season will be assessed on how many points we made and how we finish. That of course depends on our result at Wigan."
The only plus from White Hart Lane was the return of Robin van Persie after five months out. But given his huge influence on the final 22 minutes, even that was tinged with ‘if onlys'. On Sunday, the Dutchman may start his first Arsenal game since the 4-1 win at Wolves on November 7. It will all depend on late tests.
Denilson faces similar scrutiny over his groin problem and remains a major doubt. Thomas Vermaelen is the other change from Tottenham. The defender's season ended midway through the first half when he went down with a calf problem.
Wigan had their own woes on Wednesday night. Relegated Portsmouth clung onto a goalless draw at the DW Stadium in a game that could have seen the home side pretty much secure top-flight status. They still have a handy five-point cushion and should be OK but they limping over the line.
The Wigan pitch came under criticism earlier in the campaign. The Rugby League season started in February and duel use took its toll before the surface was re-laid.
"That's one of the aspects that I am keen to see," said Wenger. "They say it's better so we will see but Wigan try to play football. It is in their interests as well to have a good pitch. The Premier League has to create a criteria committee where the pitch is part of the requested level. If we want to be the best league in the world then we need the best pitches in the world and the Premier League has to act on that."
When Wenger spoke to TV Online on Thursday, he talked passionately about the standards expected at Arsenal Football Club. Dropping off the title pace, he argued, was not an excuse for dropping your head. Even if Chelsea lose at Spurs and Manchester United lose at Manchester City on Saturday afternoon, Arsenal would, in all probability, still not win the title. However they have to assume they could.
"It is more hope than a realistic view but anyway let's finish as strong and as well as we can," he said. "Then we will assess our season.
"I believe overall this team has gained a lot of credit and in my opinion they have done until now extremely well. So it is important that we do not get a negative vibe now because we are not capable to focus on our remaining games.
"Of course, the morale is down because we lost a game we could not afford to lose. Our job is to focus on the next game and finish the season as well as we can and with as many points as we can. That is our target.
"We just want to show that we can respond on Sunday."
Our season will be judged how well we finish and that is why we play a vital game on Sunday."
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