By Richard Clarke
“There is a very little chance the title will happen,” said an earnest Arsène Wenger in his pre-match press conference. “But I do not want to come out of the season and think that if we had won at Stoke, then our last two games, we would have made it.
“I don't leave in dreamland, I live in a realistic world. But we all live in a competitive world and a real competitor fights until the end.”
It is only attitude the Arsenal manager can adopt right now. If his side win at Britannia Stadium on Sunday lunchtime and Chelsea beat Manchester United a little later that day then Wenger’s side will be a win away from the leading pair with two games left. They would be in touch but in need of assistance.
We thought we’d left all the hypotheticals back at Bolton a fortnight ago but the victory over the leaders last weekend allows us a little latitude once more. Some English bookmakers have Arsenal at 100/1 to win the title, Wenger himself says it should be about 20/1. Either way, the challenge this weekend is merely to remain ‘in the mix’.
“There's a little chance, yes,” said Wenger. “At the moment we have a five per cent chance to be in the battle. So the most important thing is for us to give absolutely everything to be in there. After that you never know.
“Of course, we need Chelsea to win and then the two teams involved still to drop points in one game. We need exceptionally positive circumstances and that has not been the case until now this year. But I do not want to have any regrets.”
So first place is a distant dream and second a target. But anything lower than third would be a blow to both Arsenal’s current and upcoming campaign.
“The first step for us was to be in the top four,” said Wenger. “Last Sunday was a decisive move in that because if Tottenham had won at Chelsea and we had lost against Manchester United, they would be six points behind us with a game in hand. Now, we still go step-by-step and the next step is to be in the top three.
“Of course, we want to avoid the Champions League qualifier. We always coped with it in the past. We had to do it a few times and we have done it in a convincing way.
“But we know we are not out of there yet. Many teams will try to be in the top three and we will do absolutely everything to be in there.”
Johan Djourou and Gael Clichy (hamstring) face late fitness tests. Cesc Fabregas (thigh), Samir Nasri (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (calf) are definitely out.
Thomas Vermaelen could be involved in a first-team game for the first time since August last year. Meanwhile Aaron Ramsey will make only his third start for Arsenal since suffering a horrible broken leg at the Britannia Stadium in February 2010.
The Welshman capped a wonderful display with the winning goal against Manchester United last Sunday. It is inevitable that Ramsey and his tackler on that fateful day, Ryan Shawcross, will have a back-page build-up to the game. But, during his media work, Wenger was keen to use football as the ultimate therapy.
“It was an accident that happened,” he said. “You do not want to skip games when you are a football player because of geography.
“The best way to deal with the situation is to focus to play well and win the game.”
Stoke have had a successful season. They secured their Premier League status very early and have reached the FA Cup Final. It will be historic should they beat Manchester City next week at Wembley while a top 10 place would be their best finish for 37 years.
They have lost just one of their last six games but then Arsenal have taken 30 points on the road this season – the best in the Premier League. However it is testament to their tail-off that victory on Sunday would be the first time they had registered back-to-back wins since February.
“Reaching the FA Cup final is a massive achievement for Stoke,” said Wenger. “Especially the way they won the Semi-Final.
“But if you look at the difficulty of staying in the Premier League then the fact they were safe so early is a great credit to them too.”
Last Sunday’s win over Manchester United was probably the best of the season. It was a dominant performance against a top side in fine form. Unlike the victory over Barcelona, Arsenal dominated throughout and when they beat Chelsea late last year the Stamford Bridge were off their game.
However in terms of significance the victory barely ranks in the top six.
Arsenal lost their way for a couple of months before Sunday and are now relying on others to put them back on course.
All they can do is win and hope.
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