By Richard Clarke
“It feels a little bit like that yes. Certainly it is a big game for us.”
Arsène Wenger had just been asked if Wednesday’s trip to Everton was a "six-pointer”, the traditional label of a decisive game at the end of the season.
His response was about as firm as you will get on the subject with only a third of campaign gone.
The Goodison Park side go into this game fifth, one point and one place above Arsenal. Quite rightly, the Toffees have been applauded for an unusually strident start to the season.
But one win in seven suggests a certain plateau has been reached. Meanwhile Arsenal have suffered one defeat in eight. Yet the perception of both sides is not nearly as polarised as the numbers might suggest.
Everton are hanging on to the coat-tails of the top four, Wenger’s men have not yet done enough to prise their opponent’s fingers from the fabric, let alone look much higher.
That is why even the Arsenal manager senses a shift is possible with a win in the North-West.
“Usually Everton seem to have a bad start,” said Wenger. “And yes recently they have gone through a spell that is a bit less impressive.
“But at the beginning of the season, they were winning game after game and I still believe they will be one of the contenders for fourth. However, at the same time, the season is long.
“Everton have already shown that they can beat teams like Man United at home but they drew against Norwich over the weekend as well. So it’s very difficult to predict but I do feel they will be one of the contenders.
“What David Moyes has done through the years is remarkable. Everton have worked extremely well and he deserves credit for that.
“They have more options up front this season and I believe they always buy well. Nikica Jelavic has done well for them. Marouane Fellaini has moved forward. They’ve got quality players like Steven Pienaar and Leon Osman, plus Steven Naismith who is good at getting in the box to score goals. We need to repeat our good defensive performances recently and keep them quiet, especially Fellaini, their main player offensively. We’ll have to take care of that.”
Two successive clean sheets is a small but significant step for Arsenal given that needless concession was behind the majority of the September/October hiccups that followed a watertight start to the season. The return of Kieran Gibbs is a significant factor over the last 180 minutes, as the manager outlined in glowing terms.
“He was very good in the draw at Villa,” said Wenger.
“I have to be cautious with him because he’s just coming back from injury but if he can keep up his fitness, I think he can be one of the revelations of the season. I think he has more authority in his game and more confidence in his expression now. That is quite interesting for us.
“The recent clean sheets are pleasant for us too because that helps the team to think ‘OK we can attack more’ and with a bit less the idea that if we lose the ball, we will be in danger. It builds up the audacity of the team a little bit.
“As well as that, our overall unbeaten run is important in building up the confidence of the team. We have another big game now at Everton. Can we maintain that consistency? I believe we will come back.
“If you look at the results of the Premier League, I said that many times this season, it looks like consistency will be rewarded more than ever, and that goes for games like the one at Everton.”
Theo Walcott has recovered from his shoulder injury and returns to the squad. The manager promised some rotation so, like at Villa on Saturday, do not be surprised by surprises. Certainly a lot of factors will come into Wenger’s thinking as the games come thick and fast.
“It’s a mixture of objective signs as we now measure the fatigue level of the players, plus your experience, your individual knowledge of the players, the fixtures coming up and the chance of rotation,” he said.
“Sometimes you have no possibility because you might only have one player in one position. So all that together makes your decision.”
Both theses teams suffered disappointing draws at the weekend. Arsenal were, in the manager’s words, “lacking sharpness” at Villa Park while Everton were pegged back by a last-gasp goal at home to Norwich. That was without the talismanic Fellani but the Belgian is back from suspension on Wednesday. The hirsute midfielder is sometimes criticised for being over-physical but Wenger feels he stays on the right side of the law.
“Everton’s offensive game turns around him,” said the manager. “He is the target man they look for and these days he seems to be moving further forward.
“When he arrived he was more defensive. Now he is more and more forward and he looks like he will finish up front.
“He is not a dirty at all. For me he is an intelligent player and he uses his body well.”
Arsenal’s Goodison Park record is decent – four wins and a draw in their last five games. They have hit six and four in that time but the last two fixtures have been the scrappy odd-goal victory you might expect in the toughest of Premier League territories. And the type of winkled-out win that Wenger would snatch with both hands on Wednesday night.
On another day, they might have sneaked a similar success at Villa Park at the weekend. And the irony of the post-match reaction is their best period of the 90 minutes came in the dying stages when Gervinho had moved through the middle.
The manager pointed out afterwards that Saturday’s game was exactly the sort of scenario in which they have suffered disappointing defeats in days gone by. You only have to go back to Norwich on October 20 for a relevant example.
Victory at Everton would not put that right but it would put them clear in fifth place.
That would be Arsenal’s highest position for two and a half months and another indication of their stoic recovery.
Everton: Anichebe (hamstring), Hibbert (calf), Neville (knee)
Arsenal: Diaby (thigh), Santos (abdominal), Rosicky (match fitness), Fabianski (ankle)
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