LONDON: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger faces a potentially decisive week that could make or break his side’s three-pronged bid for silverware.
The English champions need a point from today’s game in Valencia to reach the Champions League quarter-finals. They then face Everton in the English Premier League on Sunday and meet Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final replay just two days later.
Home draws against Chelsea and AS Roma and a shock 2-0 defeat at Blackburn Rovers have undermined Arsenal’s confidence and Wenger will need all his experience to keep his team on course for a repeat domestic double and a first European Cup triumph.
“I feel the players will respond in the next game,” Wenger told Arsenal’s official website. “Since the defeat at Manchester United (on Dec 7) we had not lost for 20 games so the players have shown considerable strength in the past and they will again in the future.
“I don’t think it is a problem of confidence, we were five points ahead before this game. The players were simply not as sharp as usual. We never found our flow in the game.”
Arsenal looked jaded at Blackburn, lacking their usual attacking inspiration and looking vulnerable defensively after Martin Keown limped off to join Sol Campbell on the sidelines.
Keown and, almost certainly, Campbell will miss the game in Valencia, leaving Pascal Cygan, widely criticised for his performance at Blackburn, and Igor Stepanovs to face the physical challenge of the Spanish champions’ leading striker John Carew.
Carew’s headed goal knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage two years ago and he will be confident of taking advantage of the absent England defenders.
The Blackburn defeat was as comprehensive as it was unexpected. The last two times Arsenal won the Premier League title in 1998 and 2002 they went on long unbeaten runs after Christmas until the championship was secured.
Improving Everton, now fifth in the table, inflicted Arsenal’s first defeat of the season at Goodison Park in October following Wayne Rooney’s stunning late goal and they will be keen to consolidate their bid for a European place.
Arsenal are now just two points ahead of Manchester United and five clear of Newcastle with eight games each remaining.
The match on April 15 against arch-rivals United, who will top the table for the first time this season if they beat Fulham on Saturday, could well decide the destiny of the championship.
“We know now that if we win our last eight games we will win the title and we’re quietly confident of doing that,” said United utility player Phil Neville.
The Gunners looked to be heading for the FA Cup semi-finals after coming from behind to lead Chelsea 2-1 going into the dying minutes of the game at Highbury 10 days ago.
But Frank Lampard’s scrappy equaliser gave their London rivals a lifeline and, with no other chance of silverware this season, Chelsea will be determined to win the replay to set up a last-four clash with First Division Sheffield United.
It all adds up to a worrying few days for Wenger, who is renowned for his calm and analytical approach to adverse situations.
“In the next week or so we play Valencia, Everton and then Chelsea, so the fact we have so many defensive injuries is worrying,” he said.
“We will go for every trophy but right now the Champions League is on my mind.” – Reuters