ROBIN VAN PERSIE looked positively affronted when it was put to him that Arsenal were English football’s form side over the last month. “I think it is a little more than that, no?” the Dutchman shot back, his eyebrows raised in arch amusement.
Van Persie had a point. While Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all had their wobbles since the turn of the year, Arsenal have rolled on regardless: 18 games unbeaten in the Premier League, serene progress to the last four of the Champions League, where United await later this month, and ready to dust off their suits for tomorrow’s FA Cup semi-final with Guus Hiddink’s team.
The north Londoners are a side transformed. Where just a few months ago they entered matches paralysed by self-doubt, their failings having been laid horribly bare by a string of the top flight’s also-rans, there is now bullish self-belief — a cast-iron faith in themselves and the long-term project being undertaken by their manager, Arsene Wenger.
Wednesday’s thumping victory over Villarreal was like watching Arsenal’s revival in microcosm. First, the visitors were winded by an early goal, taken with stunning aplomb by the reborn Theo Walcott; then, just when the Spaniards sensed a comeback with some polished football at the start of the second half, they were dispatched with ruthless efficiency by Emmanuel Adebayor’s clinical second goal. Van Persie duly applied the coup de grace from the penalty spot and Arsenal ended the evening with the crowd’s ‘olés’ ringing in their ears.
When he reviews the footage in his Carrington bunker, Alex Ferguson will have plenty to ponder. Villarreal are not accustomed to being swept aside in European competition — United have not mustered a single goal against the La Liga side in four Champions League meetings — but they were crushed at the Emirates. The Scot has treated Wenger with cosy affection in recent years, largely because he has not considered his side a threat to United’s supremacy. That attitude might have to harden in the coming weeks.
There is certainly no inferiority complex on Arsenal’s part. “It is all about winning now,” Cesc Fabregas, the captain, said. “We may not have the experience of Manchester United or Chelsea but we have the confidence and the excitement to play big games in the FA Cup and the Champions League. We are not scared of anybody.” That much was evident in van Persie’s reaction to Arsenal’s fixture list over the next six weeks, which borders on the brutal. Wenger’s side face Chelsea twice, Liverpool once and United three times in the next nine games but while that sequence would once have invoked trepidation, now it is an inspiration.
“I could not wish for more than these games — it is unbelievable,” van Persie said. “I have always had a belief in this team and now we can call ourselves one of the best four teams in Europe and that is about right. Now we want to move on and win things.”
Van Persie is currently a picture of contentment. His injury problems appear to be nothing more than a bad memory, he is revelling in the extra responsibility afforded him by Wenger as one of the squad’s elder statesmen and even the thorny issue of his unsigned contract appears to be receding, with the 25-year-old confirming that he expects to pen a new deal at the end of the season.
“The facts are that Arsenal want to extend my contract and I’m positive about that as well,” he said. “We’ve had a good few meetings and everyone is very positive. Arsenal really want to extend it and I want to extend it as well.”
His good humour can only swell at the thought of a first ever visit to Wembley — a ground Wenger has also yet to grace since its rebuilding — and a long-awaited opportunity to pit wits against Hiddink, a hero in his native Holland.
“The first thing I thought when Guus Hiddink came to Chelsea was: ‘Oh, no!” van Persie said. “They were still in the FA Cup and Champions League and I felt sure he would win something. He is unbelievable. When I saw him two years ago in Holland, because we use the same physio sometimes, I asked to see his hands. He said: ‘Yes, why?’ I said that everything he put his hand on turns to gold.”
Hiddink’s reputation is well founded, a point which makes Chelsea marginal favourites tomorrow, but, in Wenger, Arsenal have their own alchemist.
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