FOR THE first time in what seems a very long time Arsene Wenger looked relaxed after Saturday’s victory over Sunderland; and for the first time in a while, he was talking sense.
Wenger has looked a shadow of himself in recent weeks and, worryingly, there has been good reason to question his sanity following a string of puzzling statements that have done little to enhance his reputation.
Following a convincing defeat against Chelsea at the Emirates, in which Didier Drogba was quite clearly the difference between the teams, he baffled reporters by suggesting the Ivorian had done very little in the match.
Then there was an ill-advised decision to field a reserve team in the FA Cup at Stoke and a bizarre rant over Aston Villa’s ‘long ball’ tactics which infuriated Martin O’Neill following a goalless draw at Villa Park.
Then, after last week’s defeat at Porto in the Champions League he launched an astonishing and unjustified attack on Swedish referee Martin Hansson following a mix-up between Sol Campbell and Lucasz Fabianski.
But, thanks partly to his players’ willingness to learn and perhaps even more to the inadequacies of his rivals Wenger is finally coming round to the opinion that all is not lost. Even the most observant reporter has probably lost count of the number of times Arsenal have been ruled out of the title race this season but Saturday’s victory, secured through a 27th goal from Nicklas Bendtner and an injury-time penalty from Cesc Fabregas, definitely puts them back in the mix.
And, considering they have probably the most comfortable run-in of all the top four, Wenger’s biggest job is to temper expectation and keep his team on an even keel.
“We will fight for our dream,” he insisted. “We believe we have a chance mathematically and we believe we are ready to take it. But we must be focused. It is a good combination of having a target but as well being realistic. We go to Stoke on Saturday, we have to turn up with full belief and full commitment or the dream will be shattered quickly.
“It will not be easy, whatever the matches we have. Sunderland fought for their lives against us. They man-marked us everywhere, they didn’t give us any room and it was a very difficult game. That is why I believe it is important for us not to dream, but to be realistic and focused.
“The closer you get the bigger the pressure becomes at the top of the league,” he added. “Chelsea as well have difficult games and play in the Champions League. But let’s not try to predict, let’s go from game to game and see what happens.”
Wenger is right not to overstate his case because Arsenal’s performance against Sunderland still showed signs of weakness. Yes, they dominated possession and were worthy winners but there were one or two moment in defence when they looked alarmingly vulnerable.
Bendtner put the home side ahead when he tapped home a 27th minute cross from the impressive Emmanuel Eboue but Sunderland should really have equalised after an error from Aaron Ramsey allowed Kieran Richardson to send Kenwyne Jones through on goal unchallenged.
Thankfully for Wenger, Jones dragged his shot wide but had this match been against stronger opponents you suspect they would not have been so profligate.
On the positive side the return of Theo Walcott is a major boost and although he often disappointed with his final ball there were encouraging signs that the England winger is now returning to full fitness.
“A lot of people do tend to write us off but we just stay in the background and do our own thing,” insisted Walcott. “We are concentrating on every game as it comes and we’re only six points behind Chelsea now. It was very frustrating in the early stages in the season with results not going our way especially in the big matches as well. But it’s sort of all come together now.”
As for Sunderland, they remain almost baffled as to why an encouraging start to the season has evaporated.
“If somebody had told me we wouldn’t win in 13 games I would have thought that would be practically impossible,” he said. “We had the best start in 35 years. We had a little bit of luck against Liverpool with the beach ball and I don’t think we have had any since. You need something to turn and you just have to keep going until it does.”
MATCH RATING: *** – There was plenty of attacking intent from Arsenal but they were man-marked in the second half which made adding to Bendtner’s early goal more difficult
REFEREE: Steve Bennett (Kent) 7 – A solid performance in a match that posed few problems for the officials. He took his linesman’s advice on Arsenal’s last-minute penalty.
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