By Richard Clarke
This is not a preview.
Unless something seismic occurs in the final month of the Premier League title race, the time for those has gone. The season is not in total wind-down just yet – points are required to secure Arsenal’s perennial passage to the Champions League Group Stage and the visit of Manchester United this weekend is incapable of being a quiet affair. But the remaining four games in Arsenal’s campaign can only serve to place perspective upon everything that has gone before.
Of course, there is irritation and anger in the air right now. A season that promised so much will almost certainly end trophyless. But, just before they play a side who are “90 per cent” champions according to Wenger, the manager set out his belief that progress has been made.
It is hard to sell the promise of next season amid the debris of a fast fading campaign. But at Thursday’s press conference the Frenchman made his pitch.
“We have exceptional quality but, at the moment, we have to face skeptical attitudes from people,” he said. “I can understand that.
“But it is not as bad as people say. We live in a world where if you do not win you are criticised and we have to accept it. But that doesn’t mean you are nobody.
“We have produced consistent quality. We have just lost after 16 unbeaten games in the last minute against Bolton. But we have to improve of course.
“And,” he went on, “we have to accept that only one team can win the title.
“It’s frustrating to accept you’re close as we were and that, in one week, basically [it is gone]. What is more frustrating is that it happened without disappointing performances because we produced [one] against Liverpool, Tottenham and even at Bolton. It is highly frustrating, but that’s part of the game and top-level competition.
“Still, when you are ahead after 97 minutes against Liverpool, not every season will you get a penalty in the 102nd minute. When the team has lost a little bit of confidence, is a bit more nervous and in a more difficult patch, you pay for some things but you do not necessarily pay for every year.”
Forget any previous profligacy, had Arsenal beaten Liverpool, Tottenham and Bolton, Sunday’s game might well have been the decider portrayed in its inevitable pre-match billing.
Wenger has said he will assume Arsenal are in the title race until the mathematics tell him otherwise. However he admits that, having slipped to third last week, he must start to look over his shoulder aswell. Fourth place would mean a Champions League qualifier, fifth would mean the Europa League.
“We have to watch that,” he said. “I am convinced that is not done. Even being in the top four is not done. We have to fight like mad.
“It is not a massive concern maybe because if Tottenham come up then Manchester City or Chelsea drop as they all play each other. But our focus has to be to win our games.”
Thomas Vermaelen’s successful comeback in the Reserves on Thursday was welcome but it arrived too late to affect Arsenal’s season. However it does mean that Abou Diaby (calf) and Lukasz Fabianski (shoulder) are the only injured players. Fatigue may have been a factor in Arsenal’s fall away but not injuries.
Manchester United may have spent the past 20 games on top of the Premier League yet, for all but the last half-dozen, they have drawn criticism themselves. Broadly speaking, a miserly defence and misfiring frontline took them to the top. The goals then began to flow more easily when leaks sprang at the back.
Only recently have they begun to put it all together and a supposedly less than vintage Manchester United now find themselves on the brink of a record 19th League title and a place in the Champions League Final. Given their dominance in Gelsenkirchen this week, it is hard to see Schalke overturning a 2-0 deficit at Old Trafford.
Arsenal’s record against Manchester United needs improving if they are to once again challenge for the title next season. They have won just three of the last 17 Premier League meetings. The home side may have Robin van Persie, who has scored 23 goals in his last 24 League starts but the likes of Wayne Rooney and Ji-Sung Park possess eye-catching scoring records against Wenger's men.
Despite recent disappointments, Sunday remains a useful measuring stick for Wenger. The English press is blamed for many things these days but, in the wake of Arsenal’s demise, the general swathe are not suggesting wholesale changes are required at Emirates Stadium. The manager concurs and a win this weekend would certainly support his view.
“We are there,” he said. “It is about getting from where we are now and that is a position very close to winning the title. I feel we are strong enough but the pressure is high and it will be difficult.
“Next year Chelsea will invest, Liverpool will invest. Liverpool have not won the title for 20 years. However people think you have to win it and yes, of course, we want to win it. But we were very close.”
It is ironic that the three teams below Arsenal – Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool – have, or at least had, a real feelgood factor surrounding them this season. Whereas Wenger’s men and Chelsea have not, Manchester United have only gained theirs in the last month or so.
It is all about expectation of course. Liverpool are on the rise after off-pitch problems and on-field decline while Tottenham have ventured into the unchartered territory of the Champions League. Manchester City look like usurping them this season and, after gleefully dispatching their cross-town rivals, have an FA Cup Final on the horizon.
There is a feeling Arsenal’s campaign started to unravel in the other Wembley showpiece.
“Certainly winning the Carling Cup would have taken a little bit of weight from the shoulders of the players,” agreed Wenger. “For me, the Carling Cup in itself is not important. But what it could have given, a little bit of playing with less weight on your shoulders.
“I watched, I don’t know 100 Cup finals, I’ve played myself maybe 15 to 20. It’s difficult to imagine you can lose a cup final like that.”
But Arsenal did and perhaps their season never truly recovered.
The job now is re-build, renew and re-focus. A case for progress can be constructed but, right now, it would be torn down once the ceremonial ribbon was cut.
Assuming Manchester United hold on top spot and assuming Arsenal stay in the top three, a safe stroll to the close season is what we will all look to right now.
However having beaten Barcelona at Emirates Stadium back in February, seeing off the other likely Champions League Finalist would at least support the manager’s view that consistency – not ability – undermined Arsenal’s campaign in season 2010/11.
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