By Richard Clarke
This week, of all weeks, Arsenal fans should allow themselves a little optimism.
We have reached, perhaps, the first pinch-point of the season. However, if Arsène Wenger's team could pull them off, victories at Manchester United on Saturday and Schalke on Tuesday would allow their supporters the liberty of dreaming.
The latter success would go a long way towards tangible progress in the Champions League - qualification to the knockout round. A win at Old Trafford would, in a strictly statistical sense, only mean as much as that scraped, scratchy win over QPR last weekend.
But, emotionally, it would be huge.
And if pure blind belief means anything then Arsenal should have the advantage. Just before Laurent Koscielny nodded home from close-range to make it 4-3 in the 89th minute at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday, Wenger's men were 750-1 to lift the Capital One Cup. A fine little fairy-tale later, followed by a quarter-final draw that pitched them against League Two side Bradford, and the Club's betting partner Betsson makes that same achievement less than 2-1 now.
Before we leave Tuesday's incredible events, it is important to clarify one point. The Arsenal fans stayed put. If any did leave during that pretty poor opening half-hour, it was a minuscule percentage of the 4,000 in the away end. As an eye-witness, I can't vouch for the their mood as the four goals flew in but, despite TV suggestions to the contrary, they did not vote with their feet. It was similar at Old Trafford last season when the travelling fans sang their breaking hearts out as Arsenal went down 8-2.
Naturally, that afternoon was recalled ahead of the repeat fixture on Saturday. And it appears the same seeds of Tuesday's comeback were also sown at Manchester United that day. Only this time the harvest went bad.
"I am always an optimist," said Wenger, employing the word of the week. "They say a pessimist is a well-informed optimist and on that day perhaps I was badly informed!
"But I always hope that my team will create something special.
"With 20 minutes to go, it was 4-1 and I decided to go for an offensive policy. But we were trying to come back with 10 men and we were already dead. Of course after that we paid for it so maybe I should have said ‘OK let's keep it tight and go out with 4-1 - thank you very much, see you next week.'
"But we wanted absolutely to give ourselves a chance to come back and maybe we shouldn't have done that."
The manager admits that an attacking approach is in his DNA and, by definition, that of his team. Sometimes you get Reading on Tuesday, sometimes you get Manchester United last season. But Arsenal's famous comebacks and cup successes in the last 16 years suggest the examples of the former outweigh the latter.
"I do what gives us the best chance to win games," he said by way of explanation. "But when you make a team, you cannot go against their nature.
"You cannot play with Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta and say 'look we only defend'. They would say 'what are we doing on the football pitch then?'
"Your style is dictated by the players you pick. Sometimes, when you don't win, maybe you have to learn not to lose before you can win a game so you give a bit more security to the team.
"I have done that but our basic philosophy is still to go forward and attack."
The spearhead striker on Saturday will be Olivier Giroud. With Gervinho injured, Arsenal will be relying on the Frenchman for the next weeks - let alone these crucial two games. There are signs that the former Montpellier frontman is settling into his new environment and certainly his introduction from the bench on Tuesday was the catalyst for the comeback. Olivier was an eternal optimist that night.
"He had a slow start but now he is on the way up," said Wenger. "He has a fantastic attitude with a positive charisma and is highly committed.
"Olivier is more a typical English centre forward; using his body well, good in the air and a hard worker.
"He was maybe surprised by the level of commitment from the defenders. In France, he used to win the challenges easily. Here it is a different story so he is still trying to add something to his game."
Their cross-town rivals may have pipped them to the title last season but Wenger admits Manchester United are still the yardstick by which any English side should measure themselves. Sir Alex Ferguson's team are second in the table but have also shown a few chinks in their armour this season - losing at Everton in their opening game and then to Tottenham at Old Trafford. Braga also gave them a mighty scare in the Champions League.
Their goals-against tally in the Premier League is 13, more than twice the number conceded by Wenger's men. However, up front, they added Robin van Persie to their attack.
The Dutchman has continued the rich vein of scoring form he enjoyed at Arsenal last season with nine goals in all competitions so far this term.
Van Persie was in the Arsenal side at Old Trafford last season but, for a combination of reasons, very few of the visitors will be reprising their roles from a year ago. Firstly, Wenger's squad was hit by injuries last season, secondly, he bought mainstays like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos in the days that followed the defeat. Thirdly, he has added more quality since in Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla.
This is a new team whose memories should not be tainted by last season. But, at the same time, they are in need of a defining, harmonising and enriching victory. The 2-0 win at Anfield and the 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium were crucial in that respect but perhaps neither were meaty enough to support a proper title tilt.
Winning at Old Trafford would be a different gravy altogether.
"I believe that every big victory makes the team stronger in belief and confidence," said Wenger. "That's why it's important.
"We won at Liverpool. We played a good draw at City.
"It's a good base to build on," he concluded with what can only be described as optimism.
"And that's what we want to do at Manchester United on Saturday afternoon."
Arsenal: Gibbs (thigh), Rosicky (tendon), Oxlade-Chamberlain (hip), Gervinho (ankle), Fabianski (ankle), Diaby (thigh)
Man United: Smalling (metatarsal) Jones (knee), Kagawa (knee)
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