By Richard Clarke
“I fight for what I can master,” said a gravel-voiced Arsene Wenger on Friday. “And I cannot master what people say.
“It’s a waste of energy and time to speak about people who have opinions. They are entitled to have an opinion, that I respect. But an opinion is just one single person who says something. It does not mean that this person is necessarily right.
“We live in a world where you have to accept that and, personally, I can completely live with it. But that is not the most important thing for me. The most important thing for me is that we put in a good performance.
“Anyway,” he went on, “I do not want to speak too much. I believe I can talk to you today for two hours, at the end of the day what will count is how we turn up on Sunday.”
The Arsenal manager is usually happy to chew the footballing fat but he had picked up a cold at an unfortunate time. This weekend’s North London derby has garnered the most publicity, the most column inches and, yes, the most talk for years.
Third-place Tottenham arrive at Emirates Stadium in what has to be described as an unusual position - 10 points ahead of Arsenal and on the fringes of the title race.
Wenger’s men were only one spot behind before Chelsea’s win on Saturday but their focus, for now at least, is fourth. Thierry Henry’s final act in his second spell at the Club was to touch home that 90th-minute winner at Sunderland a fortnight ago. Once the stagger of the weekend had unwound, Arsenal were back up in the top four with their future in their own hands.
The progress in the Champions League and FA Cup has taken a hit since then but the Premier League, always Wenger’s priority, there has been form in February – 0-0 at Bolton, 7-1 against Blackburn and 2-1 at the Stadium of Light.
However the next three domestic games could be decisive - Spurs (h), Liverpool (a) and Newcastle (h). All are against top-four contenders, with the first of those the most daunting opposition on paper. Not that Wenger has any fears of course.
“At the moment Tottenham are a good club,” he said, “with the massive support they have had always. But I believe we are highly capable to compete with them and if you look at the consistency we have produced at the top level [over the years] there is no comparison.
“Last year we were very close to the top but then there was a rupture in the building of our team with losing Fabregas, Nasri and Wilshere. We could compete with anybody in Europe with our midfield and [then only] one of them played so we had to rebuild. So [the change is] more down to technical reasons than structural ones.
“Yes, of course, [we want to get stronger now],” the manager added. “But we do not want to go too much overboard. If we had gone out in the Champions League in November, nobody would have said a word because some other big teams went out. We missed in our game at Milan, yes, but that’s all we have missed recently.”
Aaron Ramsey (ankle), Francis Coquelin (hamstring) and Sebastien Squillaci (groin) all limped off at Sunderland and miss this game. However Wenger was hopeful that Laurent Koscielny (knee) and Kieran Gibbs (groin) would pass fitness tests. Their return would at least leave the manager able to pick a back four in their specialist positions.
The overall ‘goals against’ column is still a difficult read for Arsenal fans this season but, in fact, they are only one of three clubs who have conceded fewer than double figures at home. Wenger argues that, in general, his side’s backline has gelled over the course of the campaign.
“If you look at the best teams in the League defensively, they have conceded 10 goals less than us,” he said. “We conceded eight at Man United and four at Blackburn. So overall I feel since then we have stabilised our defence.
“It was a blow to lose Mertesacker. He is a good reader of the game, a calming influence and so we have to reshuffle our defence now.”
Like Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos and the other late summer signings, Mertesacker was a month into his Arsenal career when his new side went to White Hart Lane on October 2. They went down 2-1 but the performance showed signs of solidification. They would pick up seven wins and a draw in the eight Premier League games that followed.
It was Arsenal’s best sequence of the season; a reparation run that put them back up to fourth. Despite a dip in December and January they will still be there with a win on Sunday.
But they face a Tottenham side who those opinion-givers have argued are the best in a generation. Certainly they are seriously threatening to finish above Arsenal for the first time since 1995; though a home win would reduce the gap to a much more manageable seven points.
Last season Harry Redknapp’s side ended a 17-year spell without a victory at their North London neighbours but it was not good enough to secure Champions League football.
This term, an Arsenal win would be massive boost - psychologically as much as, to use a Wengerism, ‘footballistically’.
The manager described the away fans as “fantastic” during a week that saw them travel thousands of miles to Sunderland, Milan and Sunderland again. And Wenger ended his media week with call for positive support in this season-defining game
“It’s vital that they stay with us,” he said. “Arsenal-Tottenham is a passionate game, so you expect that. But it’s only a passionate game if your fans stand behind you and give absolutely everything like the players will do.
“We want to be in the Champions League next season and at the moment we have that position in our own hands.”
A victory on Sunday will go a long way to putting them there in May.
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Coquelin (hamstring), Diaby (hamstring), Squillaci (groin), Ramsey (ankle)
Tottenham: Gallas (calf), Huddlestone (ankle)
In the last 32 meetings between the two sides, Tottenham have kept one clean sheet.
In the last three Premier League derbies at Emirates, Tottenham have trailed by two goals at some point.
Arsenal have scored 248 goals against Spurs under Arsene Wenger.
Tottenham have taken five points from their last five Premier League away games.
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