Saturday January 18 2014

Arsenal’s opponents contributing as much title charge as Gunners

Santi Carzola

Santi Carzola 


Had Arsenal brushed aside Aston Villa on opening day, Mesut Ozil would never have arrived and the Gunners would not be defiantly hanging onto the log leadership the way they have admirably managed to in recent weeks.

Arsene Wenger already had a playmaker extraordinaire in man of the season Santi Carzola, and faced with not just spending loads of money but smashing the club transfer record, the Frenchman would ideally have contemptuously dismissed a move that has visibly repulsed him in the past.

Should Arsenal cling on for dear life and finally end the trophy drought that has made them the butt of one joke too many, that defeat to Aston Villa will be one of the major occurrences to thank for the monumental shift in Wenger’s approach that has turned the club’s fortunes around.

Villa would not be the only opposition that has inadvertently come to Arsenal’s rescue; for conspirators or accomplices in this twist one would have to rewind to pre-season and the Emirates Cup.

A relatively recent but admittedly great innovation, the Emirates Cup is one that Wenger has used to gauge the readiness of his team for challenges ahead, and winning it each time had always given the Frenchman a false sense of security he all too eagerly (even somewhat naively) embraced.

Not this time though, as Galatasaray, Porto and Napoli flew into London and put Arsenal firmly in its place, the toppings being put in place by old nemesis Didier Drogba.

As Galatasary made merry, with the consolation trophy Wenger had come to take for granted and cherish, Drogba’s dagger(s) must have been the kick up the backside Le Professeur has needed but not got in years. Still though, beat Aston Villa and all would have been forgotten, and therefore long-suffering Gunners fans must be thankful that it turned out to be the Benteke show.

The statement of intent the signing of Ozil dished out, the feel-good factor the German brought to the Emirates, and the quality of service he instantly delivered on the pitch are largely the reason Arsenal are frontrunners after Christmas, where previous flattering attempts flickered out in November.

And just when Wenger is looking like returning to old habits of resting on his laurels, basking in it all and dozing off long before the ultimate mission is accomplished, in steps Jose Mourinho to nudge him out of impending slumber.

Mourinho has insisted for a few months now that Man City are favourites to win the title because of their depth, quality and maturity, but his statement earlier this week that it would be his greatest achievement if Chelsea beat City to the title was the definitive insult to Arsenal.

No need for blind rage here, the Gunners need only use this as the motivation to strengthen their resolve, get more focused and defiant, re-evaluate …
When he says that the core of Man City’s squad are in their prime, and when one looks at the defensive options, the midfield mix of physicality and skill, and an attack that has amassed 99 goals halfway through the season, Mourinho has a point.

In the past these kinds of mind games have worked for Mourinho, and this is meant to be the double-edged sword that puts Man City under pressure while denting Arsenal’s confidence in one huge swing.

But this is a different Arsenal and Arsene. Instead of sit back and overly-optimistically say that the return of Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, as well as the recovery of everyone else from top scorer Aaron Ramsey through bit part player Niklas Bendtner to forgotten man Abou Diaby puts the team in a strong position, the new Wenger has strongly hinted that he will use the loss of the inimitable Theo Walcott as the perfect excuse to swoop for a goal-getting back-up.

This kind of reaction that could leave Mourinho with egg on face first reared its head last season when in response to criticism of the team’s defensive record Wenger changed the training regime of the defence, and dropped Thomas Vermaelen and the goalkeeper.

Now the team is defending like it last did in 2004, and thanks to a substantial alteration of the transfer policy the squad has more quality and could yet get even better. If only Wenger had not been too strong-headed and insolent for eight long years!