By Richard Clarke
You might not think it but, right now, Arsène Wenger really does have all he needs.
The last international break of the campaign has just finished so the Arsenal manager goes into the final nine Premier League games of the season with a relatively fit squad, no distractions and, most importantly, his destiny in his own hands.
February ended with a Carling Cup Final defeat, March saw them stumble out of two more competitions but April just might still be their salvation.
There have been vultures circling over Arsenal’s season ever since that defeat at Barcelona. And the scent of weakness grew a little more pungent a fortnight ago after the 2-2 draw at West Brom.
Manchester United’s narrow 1-0 win over Bolton on the same day hauled them five points ahead in the table having played a game more. If the leaders beat West Ham on Saturday lunchtime, the gap will be a mighty eight points by the time Arsenal kick-off in the early evening fixture against Blackburn at Emirates Stadium.
However, at the same time, Wenger knows his side WILL be champions if they win these nine games and so he has no time for recrimination, reflection and regret. The margins are too thin and time too short.
“If you worry about yesterday, you harm tomorrow’s chances,” he mused at Friday’s press conference. “Let’s just look forward at what we can achieve.
“Nobody can say we have not tried to go for everything but what is important now is just to focus on what we still can achieve and what would be a magnificent season.
“We have been a bit unlucky with the fixtures because we had many important games one after the other. It was very difficult to deal with that because we lost many players but, attitude-wise, this group has been fantastic and they deserve to be rewarded.
“We are in April now. We did not have many games in March but we kept our unbeaten run going even when it was under threat at West Brom when we were 2-0 down. We had a difficult month on all fronts so now it’s a new start for us.”
If Arsenal do win the title, March may be viewed retrospectively as being beneficial by ‘clearing the decks’. Having been busy to a record-breaking extent in January and February, Arsenal have now just one midweek fixture remaining. On the other hand, Manchester United must juggle FA Cup and Champions League commitments while battling to keep their noses in front in the title race.
“I don’t know how much of a factor that will be,” admitted Wenger. “But it could be a help for us because in December, January and February we basically played nine games per month. In the end it was too much. We lost important players for key games.
“We have a week to recover between every game now. That should help us but let’s just focus on our performances and not [wait for] anybody else to slip up. It’s down to us.”
The two-week gap since West Brom has allowed Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), Alex Song (knee), Abou Diaby (groin) and Theo Walcott (ankle) to return. Robin van Persie (knee) and Nicklas Bendtner (ankle) have recovered after picking up injuries on international duty in midweek. Denilson (toe) and Aaron Ramsey (groin) miss out.
History would suggest Blackburn are the perfect opponents for Arsenal this weekend. The Lancashire side have lost their last seven encounters against Wenger’s men conceding, on average, 3.5 goals per game. Steve Kean’s outfit have not won in their last six games this season whereas Wenger’s men are unbeaten in 12 Premier League matches.
Blackburn have lost all six away games in 2011 conceding 18 goals. Arsenal, on the other hand, have registered four wins and two draws at Emirates Stadium this year conceding just once – and that was a Louis Saha’s controversial goal for Everton in February.
However, after somewhat surprisingly replacing Sam Allardyce with Kean, Blackburn have succeeded in keeping themselves out of the drop zone. They have zig-zagged across the median line of the Premier League for four months, going as high as seventh but arriving this weekend in 13th spot.
“Blackburn are with all the clubs down there where it is very tight to stay in the Premier League,” said Wenger. “But, for me, Steve Kean has done a good job.”
The top flight has been difficult to decode all season. The perception is that the champions will be relatively weak in comparison to previous years whereas the bottom side will be relatively strong. For Wenger, this is not an indication of dropping standards at the top. It is just that an overall rise in quality has left the title contenders room for fewer off days.
“The top sides are not weaker just less consistent maybe because the bottom teams are stronger,” he said. “Also, from our side, maybe it is because we have gone for all competitions.
“We are on a run of 12 unbeaten games so that is consistency. We had problems at the start of the season to be consistent but since November we have been extremely consistent. We went out against Barcelona under very special circumstances. The only regret we can maybe have is the Carling Cup Final in the last minute. But we have gone on for many games now and done well.
“I don’t know if we need to stay unbeaten until the end of the season but that is our target.
“We need to continue our run and also just win again because we haven’t beaten Sunderland and West Brom. It’s important for us [to get a victory].
“Of course it’s important to have the good basis of an unbeaten run [ongoing] but what will make the difference is the three points against Blackburn.”
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