The Arsenal Monday verdict: Beat Spurs and go top. How did that happen?
Seven days after being beaten at the Emirates by Newcastle, Arsenal’s season appears to be reborn. Or is it...
THERE were a few raised eyebrows when Arsene Wenger said on Friday that he felt this was the most open title race for years. Now perhaps people will agree with him.
Seven days after being denounced as also-rans in the title race after the miserable defeat to Newcastle, Arsenal are within touching distance of the Premier League summit.
Victory over Tottenham in the north London derby on Saturday lunchtime will propel the Gunners to the top of the table for a few hours at least.
That was an unthinkable scenario this time last week, but two away wins in the space of five days coupled with Chelsea’s astonishing capitulation to Sunderland has opened things up again at the top.
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Victory at Goodison capped an astoundingly good weekend for Wenger’s side, who were the only members of the top four to register a victory.
Despite three defeats from their opening 13 games, Arsenal are well-positioned to do what they have not done in recent seasons, mount a sustained, serious challenge for the title.
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Can two wins inside a week really turn Arsenal’s sinners to saints? Following up the battling 2-0 victory at Molineux with Sunday’s success over Everton convinced Wenger that it can.
“We were a bit disappointed after last Sunday but I feel that was under special circumstances against Newcastle,” said Wenger. “Overall the team has shown great spirit.
“We have had two very difficult away games with Wolves and Everton and we have got six points that put us in a good situation.
“[The team] get a lot of encouragement from the way they are playing at the moment, from our discipline and our focus. Let’s get points into our account and see where we stand in the end, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That is what Arsenal fans would expect their team to do, and on Sunday they seemed to show the necessary fighting spirit, although just as at Molineux a few days earlier, it was a nervy finish and three points could easily have turned into one on either occasion.
Arsenal seemed to invite pressure on to themselves in the final 20 minutes on Sunday, and it was something of a miracle that Lukasz Fabianski’s goal was not breached before Tim Cahill’s 89th minute goal.
Fabianski himself was the main reason for that, making a number of fine saves, the best of which denied Jermaine Beckford what could have been a match-changing goal.
The Polish goalkeeper epitomises Arsenal’s changing fortunes; so down after his mistake handed Newcastle victory at the Emirates, so up seven days later with another vital three points secured.
“When we were 2-0 up I felt we tried too much to keep that score and keep the ball in a negative way instead of wanting to continue to play forward,” admitted Wenger.
“We were nearly punished and we needed a few good saves from the keeper because we became a bit too conservative.”
Nevertheless Arsenal remain a little unbalanced when trying to hold on to a vital lead. For all the battling qualities shown by players like Alex Song and centre-backs Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci, the general belief still appears to be to play their way out of trouble.
With tired limbs and minds, this can get harder as the game goes on. Too many times in the final quarter of the game on Sunday the slender frames of Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh were buffeted off the ball, while even defenders like Gael Clichy can seem worryingly brittle.
The feeling persists that Arsenal can be caught out, as they were at Sunderland earlier in the season. In the past week though, they have held on twice, and the table tells its own story of a rapid redemption.
“The most important qualities we showed were discipline, commitment, togetherness, desire and a 100 per cent focus for 90 minutes,” said Wenger. “That is what got us the points. When you come here without those [qualities] you don’t get the points.
“The performance today has shown we have something that is not only quality football but we have fighting spirit. That is an ingredient you will need if you want to fight for the championship like we want to do.”
“At the moment we face Chelsea who are on a little bit of a different pace but what is important is that we keep going with these qualities.”
Little did Wenger know it, but shortly after he spoke those words, Chelsea were on their way to what could prove a highly debilitating defeat to Sunderland at Stamford Bridge.
The topsy-turvy nature of the season looks set to continue for a while, but Wenger’s side have perhaps laid down their marker for the season in the past week.
Questions remain about style over substance and a lack of old-fashioned British bottle, but Arsenal may well be looking down on the rest of the country again come Saturday night. The closest title race for years? Perhaps this Frenchman does know what he is on about after all.