Arsenal know that the race for fourth starts here
Gunners must keep momentum going now to maintain proud top-four record
Arsene Wenger has always called finishing in the top four his ‘minimum requirement’ for a season.
It is something he has never failed to achieve in his 16 years at the club but, if he finds the time to study the league table during a rare free week at London Colney, he will surely come to the conclusion that he now faces his greatest battle yet to maintain that proud record.
Chelsea’s late capitulation at Stamford Bridge on Sunday means that, despite Arsenal’s worst start to a season for almost 60 years, despite losing eight of their first 22 games, the Gunners are still only three points adrift of the top four.
“There is a long way to go and I am confident we can come back,” said Wenger of the race for fourth place. “We have gone through a difficult period, we’ve lost three league games but we could have won the three as well.
“We have confidence but we have to produce it game by game – for us every game in the championship is a cup final for us now. Even when we have won championships we have not won for six games.
“It is part of football that when you lose three games like we did when you don’t lose the fourth game it is already not too bad.”
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The last week encapsulated the season so far – Arsenal were ruing two points dropped at Bolton only to recover in style at the weekend, while Chelsea slipped up again by letting that three-goal lead slip in such dramatic circumstances to Manchester United.
The failure of Andre Villas-Boas’s side to pull away from a chasing pack that also includes Liverpool and Newcastle has left all four to battle it out for fourth in the next three months.
Third-placed Tottenham, seven points ahead of Chelsea, could yet be sucked back into that battle, with only the two Manchester clubs seeming to be too far ahead and contesting the title.
Spurs were happy to play for a point at Anfield on Monday night which suggests they are still looking down rather than up in terms of where they want to finish.
But Harry Redknapp’s side must travel to Arsenal and Chelsea in the next six games, and also host Manchester United in between – and it is the points teams are taking off each other that could prove crucial in the final reckoning.
Spurs have proved themselves at home this season, but are still yet to record a result away that really signifies they are title challengers rather than top-four hopefuls.
Wenger will also know that his side’s away form must improve to give them a chance – they head to Sunderland this weekend having lost six away games already this season, and their next two are on Merseyside at Liverpool and then Everton, although the latter game could be moved if either side progress to the last eight in the FA Cup.
With the Champions League ties against Milan also taking centre stage in the next month, Wenger will be only too aware of the danger of chasing cup glory instead of prioritising league points.
“Overall I feel this team is strong mentally with a good spirit and attitude,” added Wenger. “We are ready for a fight and that is the most important thing.”
Fighting talk – the next three months will prove whether or not it is enough to salvage that ‘minimum requirement’ from another troubled season.
ARSENAL’S NEXT SIX LEAGUE GAMES
Feb 11 Sunderland A
Feb 26 Spurs H
Mar 3 Liverpool A
Mar 12 Newcastle H
Mar 17 Everton A*
Mar 24 Aston Villa H
(*will be postponed if either club reach FA Cup quarter-finals)