Wounded Arsenal in last-chance title saloon
If Arsenal can take any crumb of comfort from a fortnight of misery it must be that they now have a clear run at the Premier League title.
Three points behind leaders Manchester United with a game in hand and Alex Ferguson’s side still to visit the Emirates, they look in prime position for the final sprint and a first English title since the 2003-04 season of the Invincibles.
Arsenal’s campaign has been undermined by a loss of nerve which has caused them to throw away the League Cup final against Birmingham City, slip to a feeble defeat by Barcelona in the Nou Camp and exit the FA Cup against a much-changed United side at Old Trafford.
Manager Arsene Wenger, however, still believes his side have the fortitude required to win the title.
“Yes we have it. I don’t question that,” the Frenchman told Arsenal’s website (www.arsenal.com) on Monday.
“It’s (been) a very, very difficult schedule. It’s been very difficult for the players but they have never shown any sign of weakness mentally. Even on Saturday they have put in absolutely every effort and can only be proud of how much they fought.”
Just a few weeks ago there was talk in north London of a possible quadruple which was fuelled by a 2-1 home victory over Barcelona in their Champions League last-16 tie at the Emirates.
Now they are desperately clinging to the belief that the players can regroup and reap some reward for yet another season of scintillating football which has become Arsenal’s trademark but invariably leaves them trophy-less.
Former players and pundits have been queuing up to offer an opinion about the cause of Arsenal’s angst.
Wenger’s tactics have been questioned as has his reluctance to bolster his squad in the January transfer window.
“I question myself always, don’t worry,” Wenger said.
“But if I listened to everybody then it would be a miracle that we are still playing for the title with 10 games to go. The only thing I can say is that I’m ready to give absolutely everything to do it.”
The players have also been accused of lacking steel.
Former player Emmanuel Petit, who once formed a formidable midfield axis with Patrick Vieira, said the current squad lacked a winning mentality.
“Since 2005, and the departures of (Patrick) Vieira, (Robert) Pires and company, you realise he’s banking above all on a young, malleable team where he can invest in a sporting project,” the Frenchman told The Sun.
“Arsenal’s game is a trademark on the pitch but there aren’t really any players with a winning mentality.
“This pains me because I am an Arsenal fan and, over the last few seasons, if there’s a team that’s deserved to win a title it’s them.”
Arsenal will look to steady the ship with victory at relegation threatened West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, the first of a 10-game run-in which includes a trip to north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and a home test against Liverpool but looks less arduous than United’s or Chelsea’s.
They are not helped by a lengthy injury list which includes Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Alex Song and Johan Djourou who will miss the rest of the season after dislocating his shoulder at Old Trafford. Wenger is also short of goalkeepers with Manuel Almunia his only senior option.
Wenger also needs to recover his poise. He was hit with a UEFA charge after complaining bitterly about Robin van Persie’s red card in the Nou Camp and after Saturday’s defeat at United attempted to dress his team up as valiant underdogs.
“Nobody in England believed we could fight for the top four,” he said. “The fact we’re in this position deserves a lot of credit.”
Arsenal fans will not automatically buy into that, however, and Wenger needs things to fall into place very quickly if the murmurings of discontent among the faithful are not to grow into a chorus of dissent.
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