By Rob Kelly
“This team has put so much effort in to get where we are that I’m convinced that now they will put the energy level in to get over the line.” - Arsene Wenger
THE SET UP
It is a measure of the progress Arsenal have made this season that the overriding emotion for many at full time on Sunday was one of regret.
A point at Manchester United can never be dismissed as a poor return considering their dominance down the years, yet there remained the feeling that the Gunners could have left with all three.
After a first half that Nacho Monreal described as their “worst 45 minutes this season”, a response was needed after the interval. It duly came as the Gunners stepped up the tempo, quickened their passing and stretched the hosts.
A Tyler Blackett own goal brought them back to level terms, but with United rocking Arsene Wenger accepts that his side missed the opportunity to seal their second victory at Old Trafford in the space of 10 weeks.
“I felt like the game had two sides, black and white,” he told Arsenal Player. “The dark side was our first half, the very good side was our second half.
“Having watched the game again, I felt that until Manchester United scored we weren't quite at the races. In the second half, we should have won the game. We had four or five clear-cut chances and we really dominated. Even watching it again it’s surprising how in control we were in the second half.
“It shows that the team has the capacity to respond, and as well that mentally we are strong and have the potential to score goals when needed.”
That point in the north-west leaves them on the brink of securing third place and automatic entry to next season’s Champions League. Repeat the trick or better it tonight against Sunderland and it's a done deal.
Having named an unchanged side for a sixth time in succession last weekend, the question now is whether Wenger will opt for number seven.
In truth it appears unlikely. There were clearly some tired legs on show at Old Trafford, while Laurent Koscielny is facing a late fitness test.
When you factor in Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott’s bright cameos off the bench, the smart money is on a freshening up of the team - especially with the FA Cup final looming large.
"All the big teams have stability in their team and for the cohesion, for the understanding, it is important"
“We have a big squad and the quality we have on the bench is vital,” Wenger said. “For me, a team is the 18 players. Sometimes they start, sometimes they are on the bench. But as well you need stability. All the big teams have stability in their team and for the cohesion, for the understanding, it is important.
“Sometimes you change but the cohesion goes to the 18. When Jack Wilshere comes on, he knows every player perfectly well. Theo Walcott as well. These are players that have been out for a long time, they just now come back and they have of course that hunger and potential for freshness to improve your record.”
Having slipped up last time out at Emirates Stadium, Arsenal will certainly not lack for motivation against opponents they have claimed seven wins and three draws against in their last 10 matches.
Despite having failed to score in their last two home matches, Wenger is proud of his side’s record at Emirates and expects a strong showing from his side.
“We feel strong at home - Swansea was an accident, the statistics show that,” he said. “I must say that it’s one of the games that we should really have won. Accidents can happen in the game, it’s how you respond to it.
“That’s why I believe the result at Manchester United was highly significant. Can you respond to a surprising and disappointing defeat? That’s why I was pleased that we got at least a point.”
It has been a troubling season for Sunderland but, having looked doomed last month, they now stand on the brink of survival.
The appointment of the highly experienced Dick Advocaat as interim manager appears the most obvious catalyst for their upturn in form.
"If you are Sunderland, what do you do if you need a point? You play not to lose the game and you hope for a counter-attack or a set-piec"
The former Holland, Belgium, South Korea, Russia and Serbia boss (to name just a few…), has been the calming presence the Black Cats needed, and the team has responded.
Since the 67-year-old’s arrival, Sunderland have won three and drawn one of his seven games, dragging themselves out of the relegation zone and now just needing a point to seal their Premier League status. It has been some impact.
“Advocaat deserves full credit because he kept his calm and huge experience plays a big part in that,” Wenger said. “He’s a top-class manager who has shown that in his career. You do not do what he has done in his life without being top class.
“They made a good appointment, and he will save them, I’m convinced now. Even without a point they can be safe.
“If you are Sunderland, what do you do if you need a point? You play not to lose the game and you hope for a counter-attack or a set-piece. I think that’s what they will do - they will try to be sound at the back, defend well and get the point that makes them safe.”
At this stage of the season, the job of a manager is to drag the tired legs and tired minds of his squad into one final push.
After nine months of highs and lows, landmark results and shock defeats, the season boils down to one simple task: a point or more seals third place and avoids that pesky summer Champions League qualifier.
It may be two places lower than he had hoped to finish, but Wenger is convinced his side have progressed this term and is determined not to allow them to fall at the last. One final effort and then the focus can legitimately turn to May 30 and a return to Wembley.
“We have the opportunity to get over the line,” he concluded. “Having worked so hard, coming from where we came, I believe that now it would be absolutely stupid not to do it.
“We have to be conscious as well that you earn the right to get over the line and that is with complete focus. This team has put so much effort in to get where we are that I’m convinced that now they will put the energy level in to do it.”
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