By Richard Clarke
After the events of the past week, it is not something you can really shout about but Arsène Wenger believes his side will still “have their say” in the title race this season.
Arsenal were beaten 1-0 at Manchester United in a massive match last Monday. A victory at Old Trafford would have sent them four points clear at the top; as it turned out, they were leapfrogged by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
The critics sharpened their knives as the visitors toiled. Although the scoreline was narrow, they argued, there was a wide discrepancy between the sides on the night.
Whatever your viewpoint, it was Arsenal’s fifth defeat in the Premier League while Manchester United remain unbeaten. However Ferguson’s record will be under one of its greatest threats this season when they visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Manchester United are without a win in their last nine games at Chelsea and, should they lose, Arsenal could finish the weekend back on top of the Premier League.
Of course they will have to beat Stoke at Emirates Stadium to have any hope of that. But the situation just goes to prove that this is a season in which opinion will shift and re-shape on a regular basis.
“I am surprised that you are surprised,” said Wenger on Friday when asked about the possibility of going top once more.
“Yes, we were disappointed because we lost at Manchester United but we have an opportunity to go back to winning habits at home.
“We were on a good run before Manchester United. But we lost 1-0 and it was difficult to swallow but we have to accept it.
“What is positive is if you look overall at our situation, we are still in a strong position because we still play Chelsea, Man United and Man City at home. Liverpool as well.
“So more than ever, we will still have our say in this League.”
But the Chelsea v Manchester United game is certainly seen as pivotal. Earlier in the campaign, even Wenger admitted Carlo Ancelotti’s side could run away with the title. In the last two months they have stumbled while Ferguson’s side have muddled their way back to form. When they meet this weekend, the Arsenal manager would like to be peering down on the pair of them from the top of the table.
“What I want to see is us winning the game on Saturday and then I can watch the game on Sunday in a relaxed way,” he said.
“Let's see what happens,” he replied when asked for a preferable result. “Maybe a draw but what is really important is we win our games.
“You cannot always speculate on the results of others. You only have a chance to do well in the League if you win your own games.”
With a name like Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal’s young Polish keeper is hardly a headline-writer’s dream. But if he keeps on performing like he did on his debut at Old Trafford, then they will be forced to stretch their grey matter.
Wenger will be happy to retain him for Stoke but, on Thursday, Lukasz Fabianski was 80 per cent fit. If he regains the final 20 he will play. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie are available but, despite returning to full training, Abou Diaby, has only a minimal chance of making the bench.
Nicklas Bendtner is about to become a father so he may not be involved. Manuel Almunia is out with a new ankle problem.
This is Stoke’s first visit to Emirates Stadium since the game last February in which Aaron Ramsey’s leg was broken by a tackle from Ryan Shawcross. Understandably the issue was a high priority in Wenger’s pre-match press conference but the manager was anxious to play down fears of lingering animosity on the pitch and asked for respect from the stands.
Stoke’s defeat to Blackpool last weekend ended a run of five games without defeat. For a while it appeared that Tony Pulis’ side were suffering a bout of “third-season syndrome” but after 17 games they have 21 points – exactly the same as last season when they finished a creditable 11th.
Stoke came into the Premier League with an uncompromising reputation but, according to Wenger, they are evolving.
“I think they have improved on the footballing side so they are a dangerous team for anybody,” he said.
“I certainly think they are offensively more dangerous than before because they have Kenwyne Jones, Ricardo Fuller, Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.
“They are very dangerous on the flanks, with good crosses, and in the middle. When you play against Stoke you know you will need a very solid defensive game.”
And that is something Arsenal have lacked at home on occasion this season. While the defeats at Manchester United and Chelsea have been used as measuring sticks, Wenger’s men would be well clear at the top if they had not lost to West Brom, Newcastle and Tottenham on home soil.
Victories over Wigan and Fulham have got them back on their feet at Emirates Stadium. But if the patient is still unsteady then Stoke are the type of side to punish any over elaboration in front of goal. Not that Wenger sees that as a major problem right now.
“We did not lose the game on Monday night because of that,” he said. “But because, defensively, Man United exploited some of our positions on long balls. It was not necessarily down to the fact that we were too over elaborate in our game.
“I admit there is more of a danger of that at home. You always want to make the right decision when you are on the ball. Sometimes it is to take your chance. But I personally believe football suffers much more from people who are selfish than people who over elaborate.”
The working week started with Manchester United and ended with Barcelona in the Champions League draw. These are two major names in world football – but Arsenal are another. Despite an ongoing failure in ‘big games’, going top of the table will always cure any remnants of an inferiority complex.
No-one’s claiming Wenger’s side are perfect right now but, if they beat Stoke they are top. If Chelsea beat Manchester United they will stay there for Christmas.
Clearly, Arsenal can be beaten this season but they can't be ignored.
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