By Richard Clarke
What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.
Arsène Wenger knows the title bid of his Arsenal side was lucky to survive November. But, having done so, they are now in prime position to steal a march on their rivals during December.
The Frenchman took his team into eight games last month. They won four and lost four. The defeats came in two categories -the Champions League away trips and the Premier League home games.
It was a troublesome time but, in reality, little lasting damage has been inflicted.
OK top spot in Group H has probably gone but Arsenal can qualify for the last 16 of Europe's top competition with a win over bottom-side Partizan Belgrade on Wednesday. Last Tuesday they reached the Semi-Final of the Carling Cup. A couple of days before that they had gone temporarily top of the Premier League by beating Aston Villa.
Wenger claims there are still "six or seven" sides that can take the title but surely his main rivals are Manchester United and Chelsea.
During December Arsenal will play them both.
All three teams have had their problems. But the manager argues his side are now the best equipped as winter properly kicks-in.
"December is a very important period for us," said Wenger at Friday's press conference. "We are in all the competitions and in a good position but there's more to come. We want to take off now.
"This is where the race starts now and we are in a good place. If you look at the fixture list - Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham - they all play each other. It's a defining moment in the season but we've got an opportunity to show we've improved.
"We are only two points off the leaders, we have the best away record. And I feel it's easier to rectify a problem at home rather than away from home. We have nearly everyone available. We don't have an injury crisis. So I believe strongly we have the quality to do it."
But, at the same time, Wenger feels his side are fortunate still to be in the title race at all. Arsenal often suffer a case of the November nasties - remember as this point last year they had just lost to Chelsea and dropped 11 points behind the leaders.
"I don't know why it happens," said Wenger. "Against Tottenham we had many players coming back from international duty and we dropped a bit in the second half. But we have had the Carling Cup and played many games. Sometimes it catches up a bit and in November you get the first sign that some players need a breather.
"However considering we lost three home games, yes [we are lucky to be still in the title race]. That is an opportunity usually you don't get. But, on the other hand, everybody has dropped points and we've had an exceptional away record until now.
"We want to take this chance even more because we have had the luck to still be in there."
Sebastien Squillaci and Samir Nasri should shake off knee injuries and be named in the squad. Cesc Fabregas (hamstring) is still approximately a fortnight away from fitness but Manuel Almunia (elbow) suffered a set back this week and Thomas Vermaelen (Achilles) has some way to go.
There is a wealth of statistics suggesting the visitors will struggle on Saturday.
Fulham recorded their last Premier League away win in August 2009. And they have not won in 23 league visits to Arsenal - a run going back to 1914.
However if they were to break that duck at Emirates it would be the first time Arsenal had lost three straight home games in 33 years.
Yet, although Mark Hughes' side have not won in the Premier League this season, they have lost only two of their seven games and drawn the other five.
"That is the record of a team who defends well away from home," remarked Wenger when those numbers were put to him. "Hughes has a similar style [to Roy Hodgson]. They play good football and try to play out from the back. They are very efficient too. They have lost one or two players through injury but they have some figures who are very influential like Danny Murphy."
Despite the victory over Wigan in midweek, Wenger's men are still wrestling somewhat with the memory of those November defeats to Newcastle and Tottenham. But the manager does not think they will be intimidated.
"No we have no fear factor," said the Frenchman. "That would not be an excuse. We have a high level of confidence at the moment. I believe personally against Tottenham we had a very good game."
Overall that may be true but, in reality, Arsenal's mistakes were punished ruthlessly on derby day a fortnight ago. At home, Wenger's men have shipped as many goals as Manchester United and Chelsea combined. It is almost inconceivable that they can take the title by getting more points away from Emirates Stadium than at home so they need to iron out the issues pronto.
Despite the much-discussed openness of this season's title race, you kind of feel one or two of the top three will go on a run that will ease them clear.
This Arsenal side have suffered some growing pains this year but their fate is in their own hands.
Now nasty November is over, a diligent December just might set them on their way.
Saturday is Arsenal's charity matchday of the season. Click here for full details.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.