“Our priorities are quite simple. It is important to qualify first then, if possible, finish top.”
Arsène Wenger was straightforward enough in his press conference ahead of the game at Napoli on Wednesday.
This is the final fixture in Champions League Group F and, despite having achieved a healthy 12 points, Arsenal are still not through.
If they avoid a three-goal defeat they will secure a 14th successive safe passage from the opening stages. A draw will be enough see them win their group for the 10th time during that period. It could get a little easier if Dortmund fail to win at Marseille. But the French side have no points and have just sacked their manager so you must assume Arsenal have to do it all themselves.
Surely that is enough intensity for one night. But the following two fixtures - Manchester City (a) and Chelsea (h) - represent arguably the toughest tests of the season so far.
There has been so, so much to like about Arsenal this season but supporters and media alike have been cautious with their level of belief thus far. By Christmas, we will all know just how optimistic we can be. However, for Wenger at least, only the first game of the three will be definitive.
|Arsenal: Sagna (hamstring), Diaby (knee), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Podolski (hamstring), Sanogo (back), Ryo (hamstring)
Napoli: Hamsik (foot), Zuniga (knee), Mesto (knee)
“This game certainly is as it is about being in the Champions League or not,” he said.
“The two other games are not as we are five points ahead and, overall, the Premier League is a marathon. We will be in the race no matter what happens.
“We will show our strength hopefully [over the three games]. But Wednesday is a decider, that is for sure.”
Back on October 1, Arsenal inflicted the first defeat of the season on a much-fancied Napoli side with a sublime 2-0 success at Emirates Stadium. Rafa Benitez’s team responded by winning six of the seven games that followed. But then they hit a wall by losing three in succession - including a crucial game at Dortmund on matchday five. They have recovered with a win and a draw but are now shipping goals - eight in their last three fixtures.
“We did a good job on the night in the first game,” recalled Wenger. “The defensive stability that you saw that night will certainly be a big asset to qualify this time. But let's not forget that Gonzalo Higuain did not play in the first game.
“He is a player you have to keep quiet as he is very dangerous. The more we can play outside the box the easier it will be for us.”
Fortunately the defence is Arsenal’s strength right now. They have conceded two goals in their last nine Premier League and Champions League games with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny being the crucial, calming axis at centre back.
The German is always a serene presence but interestingly the Frenchman has not picked up even a caution in domestic football since his sending off on the opening day against Aston Villa.
At the fabled atmosphere of the Stadio Sao Paolo, that mentality will be essential.
“The kind of psychological balance between different characters is important in a team but especially in defence,” said Wenger.
“Two qualities are vital at the back - the level of concentration that you're capable of maintaining for 90 minutes combined with not panicking.
“Sometimes just a voice next to you helps you to do that. A calming and informing voice that reassures and anticipates well is very important.
“We know that crowd is always part of the big games,” Wenger went on. “But we know how to deal with it. When you go from Fenerbahce to Dortmund, you get used to these kind of atmospheres.
“We will have our usual game and try to take control of the ball.
“But in the Champions League, we know you need to be at your best because the teams fight very hard to be in it.
“We want to go there not to try not to lose but to try to win.”
Winning a teak-tough group is an achievement in itself. But it would also be the perfect fillip for the two crucial games to come.
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