By Richard Clarke
“Barcelona will be an interesting game but, for us, the best way to be in a good position to beat them is to defeat Wolves on Saturday,” said Arsène Wenger with a stern sincerity at the end of his press conference on Friday.
"This game is as important, if not more important, than Barcelona. In my opinion it is actually more important by far.
“We have four days after this game to prepare for Barcelona. We play Saturday afternoon and Wednesday night, so there's no need [to save players]. I concede that when it's Monday, Wednesday, Saturday then you have to make decisions.
"But anyway, in August, we started to fight for every single ball to be in a position to go for the Premier League and now is the time of truth.
“This is the time for us to make an impact. We are in a strong position and so it would be absolutely stupid now not to prioritise the Premier League.
"We go for four different challenges and you only have a chance to achieve that if you can put your total focus in every single game. That's why it's so difficult and that's why it demands special mental strength and preparation.
"So mentally, getting ready for Wolves is the most important thing."
Got the message out there, everyone? Be it Barcelona on Wednesday or Brisbane Road next Sunday, Arsenal are unconcerned.
Wolves are what it is all about.
After last weekend’s four-goal fall away, the call for focus is hardly surprising. Before their visit to Newcastle, Arsenal had let in one goal in their previous five Premier League games. The quartet they would concede inside the final 22 minutes at St James’ Park seemed to draw more criticism than Manchester United’s defeat to this weekend’s opponents. It is understandable yet, looking at the table alone, Arsenal actually caught up ground.
But then football’s logic has never worked in straight lines.
“I hope the Newcastle game will have a positive effect,” said Wenger.
“Every result has a psychological impact. I am confident it will be a positive one on the players and that we got away with what happened against us without being really punished.
“Our distance with Manchester United is not bigger but shorter. So let’s take advantage of that in the next games.”
That Wolves win was widely celebrated by Arsenal fans. Not just because it tightened the table or put perspective on their profligacy earlier in the day, but because it ended the unbeaten campaign of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
The feat of the ‘Invincibles’ in 2004 is unprecedented in modern English football but Manchester United were starting to sniff parity. Losing that chance is a blow in itself but, when Arsenal’s 49-game run was ended in controversial fashion at Old Trafford in October 2004, they struggled to respond. This season, even dropping a few draws could cost them the title with so little to choose between the top three – and Manchester United start their recovery against cross-town rivals City on Saturday morning.
“It is very difficult psychologically to start again,” admitted Wenger. “For us it was 49 games and we lost the 50th game under special circumstances. So the sense of injustice was even more difficult to swallow. But it’s always difficult when you are on an unbeaten run and you lose it.
“I will look at it and see how they respond. Usually, they respond well. But it is a derby so anything can happen. It is maybe a chance for Man City to come back to Man United. But it will be a very open derby, more than ever.”
Johan Djourou has been passed fit after coming off with a knee problem before the comeback at Newcastle. Alex Song (thigh) and Denilson (hamstring) should be fit after missing that the trip.
Abou Diaby is injured but started a three-game domestic suspension anyway. Tomas Rosicky misses out after picking up a groin injury on international duty. The latter should be OK for Barcelona, the former has a little chance.
Perhaps that Wolves win over Manchester United should not have been a massive surprise. They had already beaten Chelsea and Manchester City at Molineux. Those nine points represent 37 per cent of their total accumulation in the Premier League this season.
They clearly like playing against the big boys but, at the same time, their away form is clearly letting them down. They have taken four points and scored just nine goals - both Premier League lows.
Arsenal have won their last 11 straight games against Wolves but that run was nearly halted last season when Mick McCarthy’s side were beaten by the latest of last-gasp headers from Nicklas Bendtner.
Back then it kept alive Arsenal’s title bid. Depending on what happens at Old Trafford, this season's victory just might shape it, you never know. But just don’t expect the same strong-arm, organised approach from the West Midlanders.
“Wolves play in a very positive way,” said Wenger. “They have changed their approach a little bit now.
“They take care of the quality of their passes. They have a good technical midfield with Henry, Milias and O’Hara. They are very strong in the centre and so it is very important to take care of our midfield play.
“But I told you at the beginning of January that our home form will be the key for us to have a good chance to win the Premier League. Since then we have responded very well at home and every game is a real challenge for any top team.”
The next two games at Emirates Stadium could massive for Arsenal. In the knee-jerk arena of the Premier League, fans and the media are always looking for ‘defining’ moments. But only history gives us clarity.
At 5pm last Saturday, it felt like Wenger’s men had suffered a mortal blow. But, in fact, it was Manchester United who cost themselves much more a couple of hours later.
Get used to it. This title race will be goal-for-goal, point-for-point, blow-for-blow for the remainder of the season. Hero one week, zero the next.
That is why Barcelona will have to wait for now.
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