By Chris Harris
“We have to swallow the difference between what we could have achieved and what we have achieved.” - Arsene Wenger
Regrets? Arsenal have a few right now.
If they had held on for one more minute at Liverpool… if Diego Costa hadn’t got the wrong side of Per Mertesacker… if they’d dug in for longer after the red card…
In another season the Gunners might have come out of the Liverpool-Stoke-Chelsea trilogy with five or more points. Instead they mustered two to slip down to third in the Premier League - and those missed opportunities have gnawed away at Arsene Wenger.
“We are still in a very strong position but we have to be objective enough and analyse enough that we didn’t get the number of points we could have got out of these three games.”
Wenger can seek solace in the stats that show his team’s capacity for an end-of-season sprint. In three of the past four years they have piled up 33 or more points from their last 15 league games.
It’s no coincidence, according to the manager. “The secret is that you are rewarded for your consistency of the attitude and your focus at the end of the season,” he said.
“The fact that your perseverance comes out is why I’m positive, because I feel this team has been on board since the start of the season. That will become stronger in the final part of the season.”
Arsenal will need another Spring surge to get what they want this year, but for now they can park their Premier League pretensions and get back on the road to Wembley.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Welbeck (knee), Cazorla (knee), Mertesacker (suspended)
Burnley: Dean Marney (calf - doubt)
Back-to-back FA Cup triumphs are another tell-tale sign of a fast-finishing team, and Arsenal’s cause has been aided by squad replenishments.
Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla now only have each other for company in the treatment room, with Danny Welbeck joining Alexis, Francis Coquelin and Tomas Rosicky back on the training pitch. No wonder Wenger is optimistic.
“The squad should all feel more confident and they should also feel more competition for places,” he said. “My problem for selection will be bigger but when you look around you, you have players on the bench who can change the course of the game. That makes the squad stronger.
“The squad has responded remarkably well to play so many big games and win them. The fact that we suddenly have more choices at this crucial point in the season means that you can sometimes rest a player who needs a breather and that is an important luxury to have.
“If we want to compete on all fronts, that will be very important.”
ONE TO WATCH
Arsenal’s growing throng of Egyptian fans have waited patiently for Mohamed Elneny’s debut. Saturday could see him graduate from vigorous touchline stretches to first-team action.
Wenger has eased Elneny in carefully - he hasn’t played since the start of December - but the manager likes what he’s seen on the training pitch. Even if the 23-year-old is difficult to pigeonhole.
“He’s a player who has his own characteristics,” replied Wenger, when asked to liken Elneny to his other midfield options. “He can move the ball quickly and I cannot really compare him to any of our players in our squad. He’s a bit between Flamini and Ramsey, a player who can defend and move the ball quickly.
“He’s a player who can certainly contribute a lot to our passing from the defensive areas to the final third. He can be very disciplined and win the ball back. He can make quick decisions, travels up and down the pitch well and, although he has to adjust to the Premier League, my first impression is very positive.”
Elneny has settled in quickly, too. “We have such a good mentality in our dressing room that the players who come from outside the dressing room are welcomed,” said Wenger. “Everybody contributes to his integration in the team. He’s also a very respectful boy who wants to do very well, so that will be well accepted in the dressing room."
Wenger made five changes for Arsenal’s last FA Cup tie (and it would have been six if David Ospina had been fit). The Colombian will start this time, while the likes of Coquelin and Rosicky are also in contention.
There is one enforced change - Mertesacker serves a one-match suspension for his red card against Chelsea.
Burnley manager Sean Dyche may be in a quandary ahead of Saturday’s trip to the Emirates. Does he pick his best team or should he give key players a rest ahead of the Championship title run-in?
Wenger won’t try and second guess his opposite number - “I have my own problems!” he joked - but he had a timely warning when he watched Burnley make it four wins in a row with a 4-1 dismantling of Derby County on Monday.
|Arsenal have won their last five FA Cup ties against Burnley, scoring 16 and conceding just once
The Gunners have won 32 of their last 39 home FA Cup ties at home (D6 L1)
Olivier Giroud has scored nine goals in his last 13 FA Cup appearances
Arsenal’s opponents have scored 14 goals in those four matches and, in Andre Gray, they have one of English football’s most prolific strikers, a man who has followed the same non-league route as Charlie Austin and Jamie Vardy.
“It’s impressive what he has done,” said Wenger. “But you can see that the danger comes from everywhere because they also have George Boyd who is very dangerous. He works very hard on the flank.
“They also have players who know each other well, who have played together for a while and who are confident at the moment. More than one player, it looks like the whole team that can always be dangerous.
“I believe they can survive periods where they suffer. Against Derby in the first half they were a bit on the ropes but they recovered remarkably and took advantage of their own strong periods. They have a kind of efficiency which is very dangerous.”
Wenger has lost just one of his 40 FA Cup games against lower-league opposition, and he will take Burnley just as seriously.
“I take it very seriously because we will prepare like we do for any game in the Premier League,” he said. “Overall we know that this is an important moment of the season for us because we have just come out of a defeat and it’s always important to respond after that.”
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