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Wenger can’t afford another loss to Mourinho and Chelsea

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By MARK SSALI

Posted  Saturday, December 21   2013 at  02:00

In Summary

Victory at Old Trafford would have brought with it that intangible value that a club that has gone that long without tasting glory so desperately needed.

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Just over a month ago, Arsenal blew a huge chance to send a message reverberating around the Premiership all the way to May, when they went to Old Trafford and lost.

Manchester United have bullied the Gunners for years on end; but with the old adversaries at their most vulnerable in years, a Gunners side that until then had been dripping with self-assurance should have pounced.

Victory at Old Trafford would have brought with it that intangible value that a club that has gone that long without tasting glory so desperately needed.
From a calculable point of view it would have carried no more than three points, and was not a real taste of title credentials because Arsenal has already passed that particular exam with flying colours.

They still sit atop the table because of doing the business that truly matters; before that United loss they had collected the points from routine conquests of Fulham, Sunderland, Stoke, Norwich and Crystal Palace, and had added the bonus of big-game triumphs over Tottenham and Liverpool; after that United loss they won three on the trot over Southampton, Cardiff and Hull, before a creditable draw with Everton and then last weekend’s exaggerated reverse at the Etihad slaughterhouse.

Ideally that is the form and consistency of champions, and all that a win at United would have accomplished would have been to earn them respect, instill fear, and make the rest of the job as seemingly easy as it has appeared to be for that same United in past. But if the loss to United was bad under those circumstances, then one to Chelsea on Monday will be even worse.

In the short term it might not matter too much in computable terms, because even if Arsenal are knocked off the Premiership summit on Monday, they have every chance to ascend again over the following weeks, with the main pursuers Chelsea, Liverpool and Man City set to take points off each other.

A loss to the Blues would be of long term consequence though. Just like he failed to exorcise the ghosts of Old Trafford, if Arsene Wenger cannot finally triumph over Jose Mourinho for the first time in their career clashes, he will plant seeds of doubt about his ability to end his title hoodoo, bad seeds which will return to haunt him in the decisive moments in April and May.

With bums getting squeaky in those pivotal months, at a conscious and subconscious level Wenger’s dressing room, the Emirates terraces, the opposition, referees and a highly influential media will begin to wonder, inwardly and outwardly, if this is not like some of the other seasons during the lean spell when Arsenal have looked like they would finally do it but ultimately didn’t.

Like was the case with a Fergie-less United in stinking form in November, there will never be a better time for Wenger to finally topple Mourinho.

The bullishness and cockiness are gone, the consistency a thing of the past, the tactical mastery, the tendency to always pick the right lineups and make the most game-turning changes are all in question.

For Arsenal the team will be self-picking and the approach familiar, but for Mourinho there is a big decision to make. Frank Lampard is a shoe-in, and Ramires will join him. But does Mourinho add Obi Mikel to those two for shape and safety, or does he leave that pair to offer the protective cover and instead start Andre Schurrle, deploying him to join Oscar and Eden Hazard in an attacking three behind the lone striker?

The option he takes will reveal his confidence levels. At Old Trafford Mourinho took a respectful stance, but it was too early in the season to know that United were there for the taking. Now the stakes are higher, the mission all too clear.

The onus remains on Wenger to seize the moment though, and to remember that he has always brought out the best in Mourinho. If the Frenchman and his team are as timid as they were at Old Trafford, his old foe will spring to life with a fatal blow.

ssalimark@gmail.com