ARSENE Wenger couldn’t have wished for a much tougher or more momentous fixture than tomorrow’s trip to Premier League leaders Chelsea for the occasion of his 1,000th match as Arsenal manager.
By around 2.30pm on Saturday Wenger’s title hopes for another year could be over, if his side fail to inflict the Blues’ first league defeat at Stamford Bridge during either of Jose Mourinho’s spells at the helm.
With Chelsea four points clear, albeit having played an extra game, a victory really is that important for the Gunners. Unfortunately for them, Mourinho’s men are sure to be desperate to win too.
Last week’s slip-up at Aston Villa was unexpected, and they’ll know they simply cannot afford to drop points for the second game in a row, especially with Liverpool in form and Manchester City well placed.
Whatever the outcome, I get the feeling Arsenal have run out of steam and will have to settle for consolidating their top-four status again this season, perhaps with the bonus of lifting the FA Cup.
Managers don’t like to talk about excuses, but on this occasion Wenger probably has just cause to mumble a wistful “if only” as his team’s decline has been partly down to bad luck.
Arsenal badly needed Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott to stay fit if they were to sustain their great start to the campaign, and injuries to those two have really taken the wind out of their sails. Ramsey and Walcott’s absence has also left Mesut Ozil scratching around for form. He needed Ramsey to burst from midfield onto his through-balls and the German hasn’t looked the same without the Welshman. Wenger’s other regret will be his own failure or refusal to sign a forward during last summer or in January, leaving them to field untried youngsters such as Yaya Sanogo in vital Champions League games.
Of course there is no guarantee that spending money will pay off – £26m Roberto Soldado at Tottenham has been a huge disappointment. But you have to take that chance, and the fact that Arsenal didn’t is on Wenger.
That said, the French manager is a true great, second only to Sir Alex Ferguson in the Premier League era. I rank him ahead of Mourinho because of the Invincibles, his coping with a small budget and the fact that he has rebuilt teams repeatedly, just as Fergie did.
He also deserves credit for the improvements he has made this season. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have been a brilliant defensive pair, while re-signing Mathieu Flamini was a masterstroke.
Arsenal fans unsure whether he should sign a new deal ought to be careful what they wish for. They only need to look at Manchester United and Tottenham to see the dangers of changing managers.
I’m sure Wenger will extend his contract this summer and go well beyond 1,000 games in charge – and he thoroughly deserves it.
Trevor Steven is a former England international footballer who now works as a media commentator.