By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger did not actually say it - but he meant it.
The Arsenal manager is one of the most articulate and eloquent men in football. He just does not ‘do’ clichés.
But, right now, he is taking each game as it comes.
There is little option really. Arsenal are gunning on four fronts and will not play successive games in the same competition until April at the earliest.
They are on the treadmill of prepare-play-recover, prepare-play-recover for the foreseeable future.
Even when he is within sight of dispatching another nagging phrase to the dustbin of history – namely that his side have not won a trophy since 2005 – Wenger baulks.
Sunday’s Carling Cup Final is close. But it is Stoke City, who visit Emirates Stadium on Wednesday, that matter.
With Manchester United otherwise engaged in the Champions League, victory will put Arsenal within a point of leaders. That is why Wenger argues the Stoke game is not a reaction to last Sunday or a potential boost for the one coming up.
It is an end in itself.
“Personally I don’t even think about the Carling Cup,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “The best way to win the Premier League is to win the game on Wednesday. It is only that which is important.
“If we want to keep in touch with Manchester United, which we want more than anything, this game is vital.
“We have given so much in the Premier League, we have gone through so many difficult periods and have come back with such resilience. Being mature is about giving importance to a game that is very important for us as a team.”
After they return from Marseilles, Manchester United must come face-to-face with the Achilles heel of their season. They have garnered less than 50 per cent of their potential Premier League points away from home this season while Arsenal have taken around two-thirds. Now Sir Alex Ferguson’s side travel to Wigan, Chelsea and Liverpool in the time Wenger’s men have just one Premier League game – Sunderland at home.
If Arsenal win against Stoke then the pressure is squeezed a little more. Drop points and there could be daylight between the top two before Wenger’s side play again.
“We know that we have to win our home games if we want to win the title,” said the manager matter-of-factly. “I told you at the end of December that our home form will determine where we finish.”
Johan Djourou is available again after a back problem kept him sidelined against Leyton Orient at the weekend. Theo Walcott is also expected to return to the squad as well. Robin van Persie (hamstring) and Laurent Koscielny (back) will be missing but may still make Sunday’s game. Abou Diaby has not shaken off his calf problem but, in any case, is seeing out the final game of his three-game ban for being sent off at Newcastle.
Stoke arrive in tenth place – two wins from both in-form Liverpool in sixth and struggling Wigan in the relegation zone. If they remain in that position it would represent their best finish since returning to the top flight three seasons ago.
“They have a side who look capable of beating anybody in the Premier League,” said Wenger. “They look to be very dangerous and they still have very good players in Kenwnye Jones, Jon Walters, John Carew, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.
“I don’t think they have dropped their level this season, I just think the Premier League is so difficult for everybody. If you win one or two games you are looking upwards, if you lose one or two games you are looking downwards. But Stoke have become a very solid team in the Premier League. Nobody enjoys playing against them.”
Least of all Wenger’s men, of course.
That said, Stoke do not seem to travel too well. They have lost eight successive games at Arsenal and their last winner in this fixture came from a certain Lee Chapman 30 years ago.
In 2011, Stoke have lost all four of their away games and only bottom side Wolves have been defeated more times on the road in the Premier League this season.
The recent addition of Carew, 6ft 5ins, to Kenwyne Jones, 6ft 2ins, smacks of a return to the more direct game that established them into the Premier League.
“It suggests they do not want to lose their strong points,” agreed Wenger. “I can understand that.
“We just have to cope with it - to close them down, to cut the crosses out - because Pennant and Etherington are great crossers. We have to be strong on set pieces too, that is part of the success we want.”
This fixture was snowed off just before Christmas. Back then, Wenger would have gladly accepted their current position - the last 16 of the FA Cup, the last two of the Carling Cup, the top two in the Premier League and leading Barcelona at half-time in their Knockout Round tie.
That Stoke game was billed as a crucial response to the defeat at Manchester United on December 13.
Arsenal have not suffered a damaging loss since that 1-0 reverse at Old Trafford and, in the Premier League, have only dropped points in the draws at Wigan and Newcastle.
The load will be a little lighter next week. But, until then, Wenger’s side cannot afford to trip up on the treadmill.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.