By Rob Kelly
“We want to continue to win and strengthen our position in second place because that’s far from being done. We have an opportunity to get closer to Chelsea and we want to take it.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
Even now, nearly a week after his side’s FA Cup semi-final victory against Reading, Arsene Wenger recalls one particularly heart-stopping moment with a shake of the head.
“We deserved to win the game - we had 72 per cent possession and 23 shots on goal,” he told Arsenal Player. “But I will never forget when Pogrebnyak was through with five or six minutes to go and they had the opportunity to make it 2-1!
“I feel we did what was needed but it had the uncertainty of an FA Cup semi-final until the end. We had to battle very hard again to go through extra-time and win the game.”
In a serene run of nine successive victories, last Saturday’s showdown at Wembley was arguably the most uncomfortable Arsenal have been. Against Championship opposition high on motivation and low on expectation, the Gunners had to draw on all their reserves of nerve and character to progress.
It may not have been the easiest of afternoons for the manager, but it is at times of difficulty that you learn most about your players - and they gave him plenty of reasons for optimism ahead of a date against the champions-elect.
“We are maturing,” he said. “We have certainly learnt from last year’s FA Cup semi-final. I believe as well that on the confidence level, we are in a better position than last year at the same period.
“Even when they came back to 1-1, I didn’t sense any panic. We just kept going, thinking we would find a way and we did it. Chelsea is a huge test for us [now], but we are ready for it.”
On the biggest of stages, you need your biggest of stars to deliver - and that is exactly what happened at Wembley.
Mesut Ozil - often the target of cheap shots early in his Arsenal career - has “blossomed” according to his manager, and he played one of the passes of the season to set up Alexis' opener.
"Ozil's pass had two factors that for me are very important for the great players - the quality of the delivery, but as well the surprise impact."
Then, when his side needed another goal, the Chilean struck his second of the game. Arsenal’s two most expensive signings taking control at the most opportune of moments - it was exactly what Wenger demanded.
“I think that is the real difference between a super professional and a guy who is not,” he said. “Out of 10 times, they produce what is requested from them nine times. I believe as well that, at the moment, players like Alexis score because the team is playing well and he gets into positions where he can take advantage of that. The providers are important as well. You speak about Ozil, he’s one of the quality providers.
“[His first assist against Reading] had two factors that for me are very important for the great players - the quality of the delivery, but as well the surprise impact. You could not really see that the pass was coming, and then you enjoy discovering that a guy has seen something that not everybody has seen. On the pitch it’s even more difficult, so it was a great pass.”
Ozil and Alexis will have to be at their most effervescent again against a Chelsea side that have perfected the art of defensive resilience. They may not have Per Mertesacker to help them - he is rated “50/50” with an ankle injury picked up at Wembley - while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is definitely out.
The stats don’t make for encouraging reading for those in the red corner of Sunday’s heavyweight clash at Emirates Stadium.
Wenger is still searching for his first win against Jose Mourinho, while Chelsea have kept four clean sheets in the last six games against the Gunners and conceded only twice.
"It’s not over and we have to fight until the end to get as close as possible. You never know."
Yet this must represent Arsenal's best opportunity to cross the final frontier. Having beaten Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool this term, it is only the Blues who remain in their path. They could scarcely be in better form and, with Mourinho sweating over the fitness of all three of his frontline strikers, opportunity knocks.
“[Beating Chelsea] is another target that we have set ourselves and it is in front of us, so what we want is to go into it with the needed belief, hunger and desire,” Wenger said.
“They had a strong start to the season, they were consistent and are the team who have lost fewer games than everybody else,” he added. “That’s why they are where they are but they made the difference at the start of the season.
“I don’t think that they have taken more points than us since January but from September to January they did. They have been consistent throughout and they relied on a strong defensive record that got them the championship.
“Having said that, it’s not over and we have to fight until the end to get as close as possible. You never know. We have to continue to believe that we can get closer and closer, and we have that opportunity on Sunday.”
Games against Chelsea always tend to have a clear narrative, whether it be Wenger v Mourinho, the Didier Drogba issue or - as now - the return of Cesc Fabregas to Emirates Stadium.
And yet the hype and hysteria seems less pronounced this time. The issues that tend to dominate the build-up to this fixture have been shunted out of the foreground for once by the football.
The match pitches Europe’s most in-form side against the team most expect to be crowned champions. Giroud v Terry, Alexis v Ivanovic, Coquelin v Fabregas. As always it promises high drama, and it also presents a golden chance for Arsenal to make a lasting statement.
“We have three main targets,” Wenger concludes. “The first is to solidify our position in the league. We are in second place at the moment and we can make this position stronger.
“The second target is of course to keep our run going. The third target is to get closer to Chelsea before the end of the season. When you have an opportunity like that, you want to take it.
“We dropped points at the start of the season but since January we have been top of the [form] table. We have an opportunity to show that improvement is consistent.”
Copyright 2018 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.