By Richard Clarke
Second-half comebacks have been crucial to Arsenal this season.
The one at Udinese on a sultry summer evening in Italy ensured their Champions League participation. The one at Chelsea in a fierce London derby heralded a highly-profitable two-month spell. The question now is what will Sunday’s seven-minute, three-goal fightback against Aston Villa do for Arsène Wenger’s side?
Of course, in itself, that second-half was a lifeline for the FA Cup, a competition of real possibility this season. But as the manager said in the build-up to that fourth-round tie, the Premier League is the priority and fourth place is the immediate target.
Chelsea’s draw at Swansea on Tuesday night means Arsenal will be level with the West London outfit if they beat Bolton on Wednesday and Blackburn on Saturday. Given that second-place Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge the following day, these two games could provide Wenger with a short, swift Lancashire ‘leg-up’ by the time the weekend is over. The key is to harness the momentum they snatched in such stylish fashion on Sunday.
“That is what you want to do,” Wenger told Arsenal Player, “to use it to our advantage in the games coming up. We have the quality and I feel that, if you look at results recently, we have been very unfortunate because in every game we were in a position where we could win.
“It's not that you felt there was absolutely no quality there, it's just that we missed what makes the difference a little bit. And that was basically defensively because we had many players out at the back.
“People forget that at Fulham we were down to 10 men, at Swansea we had many defenders out. Overall I believe that our strength and belief will again allow us to transform our Premier League form positively.
“We know from previous games that the desire in the team is great. So the ingredients are there.
“Against Manchester United in the second half, it was similar to Villa. We produced many chances and we were just unlucky to lose the game in the last 10 minutes.
"Our target now is to demonstrate the response we showed against Aston Villa in the Premier League. We want to continue to chase, to get up the table and fight for the top four.”
Returning players will help of course. Bacary Sagna made a brief but significant comeback on Sunday after almost four months out and, ahead of the Bolton game, Wenger was pondering giving the Frenchman his first start since White Hart Lane on October 2. Johan Djourou, a regular deputy at right back, has recovered after hamstring trouble.
Mikel Arteta and Thierry Henry proved their fitness with cameo contributions from the bench against Villa. Meanwhile Kieran Gibbs returned to full training this week and Marouane Chamakh’s spell at the African Cup of Nations is over. However that latter pair will not feature on Wednesday.
Bolton have found form for the first time this season. Their last six games have brought them four wins, one draw and a defeat at Manchester United. As a result, Owen Coyle’s side are out of the relegation zone while forging an FA Cup run themselves.
The Scot was active in the January transfer window. Having sold Gary Cahill to Chelsea, he recruited a replacement centre back in Tim Ream, a team-mate of Henry at New York Red Bull last season. However the American is reported to be sorting visa requirements and may not play. Bolton’s deadline-day signings are also ruled out because Marvin Sordell was acquired too late and on-loan winger Ryo cannot play against his mother club.
"They are better than their League position suggests,” said Wenger. “I felt that when we played them at the Emirates [in September].
“I always thought that they would recover because they have the basic quality. If you look at the name of the players, you just felt they would come back. They have maybe been destabilised by the Cahill case but that is sorted out now. That might be a bit easier for them. But our target is to continue what we did against Aston Villa.”
Robin van Persie’s brace that day brought him level with Dennis Bergkamp as Arsenal’s 10th highest goalscorer. Both Dutchmen have 120 strikes and, incredibly, a sixth of the current captain’s tally has been acquired in his last 20 Premier League away games. A stat that had his manager purring.
"I like that,” smiled Wenger. “I like players who score away from home because it shows real quality as well as mental qualities like courage and desire. Robin is all that.”
Arsenal were ‘all that’ in the second half on Sunday - and you sense it could be massive for their season.
You don’t steamroller Premier League opposition without possessing something a little extra. The task now is to exploit that quality at the expense of some ‘unforced errors’.
Second-half revivals are fine. Half-measures are not. And with the transfer window shut, the squad is set and the targets are clear.
The rest of the season starts now.
Arsenal: Jenkinson (back), Santos (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (groin), Diaby (hamstring). Gervinho and Chamakh (African Nations Cup duty)
Bolton: Jaaskelainen (doubt - thigh), Gardner (doubt - knee), Holden (knee), Davis (knee), Lee (leg), Alonso (ankle)
Arsenal average two goals a game away from home this season but only 1.5 at home.
Wojciech Szczesny has played the highest number of minutes this season, 2089, followed by Robin van Persie on 1989.
Bolton are unbeaten this season when they have scored first.
Only Manchester City have scored more away goals in the Premier League than Arsenal this season.
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