Gunners praying Fabregas can fire on all fronts
Cesc Fabregas has been declared fully fit for tonight's match against Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium but, much like the rest of the Arsenal squad, it is his mental condition that remains of greatest concern to Arsene Wenger.
The Arsenal captain has suffered five separate hamstring setbacks during the past year and, while Wenger is convinced that Fabregas is now physically ready to start his first game for over a month, he knows that the key test will be psychological.
Similarly, for an Arsenal team who have lost their last five matches against Chelsea at an aggregate 13-2 scoreline, there is clearly something more than just a technical hurdle to be overcome.
Wenger does not employ a full-time psychologist, but has been emphasising a familiar message to Fabregas and the other players: stay in the moment and play with the handbrake off.
"Cesc has looked sharp in the last two or three days," Wenger said. "With the hamstring, when he comes on, it is more a restriction he has in his head. So we have to move the hamstring out of his head.
"It is hard to overcome if you have a recurrence of injuries because it plays a part until you get rid of it completely by reassurance. That comes with practising every day. Physically, I think Cesc is ready. He is our leader."
For Arsenal and Wenger, the most recent point of reference for this sort of season-defining occasion was against Manchester United two weeks ago. And it was a familiar outcome as they generally held their own, but never quite looked in control and succumbed at the critical moments of the match to lose 1-0.
Fabregas has candidly alluded to a fear of losing as a reason for Arsenal's recent failure against United and Chelsea, while Wenger prefers to highlight an almost excessive desire to win.
The interesting change is that both Fabregas and Wenger do now accept that the dreadful recent sequence against their main rivals cannot simply be explained by coincidence.
"Scared is a big word," said Wenger. "Against Manchester United, we played with a little bit of restriction. It's down to the fact that the team wants to do so well, they are so keen to prove everybody wrong that it creates a little bit of a handbrake feeling in the team.
"We will naturally get rid of that slowly. I believe that my players are quite solid mentally, but they have not won yet and that is a mental hurdle everyone in life has to get over.
"We need a big win. To beat Chelsea we will have had to add something. Chelsea can be an opportunity. It is certainly something that could speed up the maturing of the team. We are in a strong position now so why should we worry whether we can do it or not?"
That strong position actually has Arsenal ahead of Chelsea in the Premier League title race, with further home matches to come in the second half of the season against United, Manchester City and Liverpool.
The improving injury situation is another source for hope. Abou Diaby, Lukasz Fabianski and Robin van Persie are all competing for starting places tonight, while the only long-term absentee of major significance is Thomas Vermaelen.
Wenger is giving particular thought to starting with Van Persie in place of Marouane Chamakh who, the Arsenal manager said, is suffering from fatigue.
Wenger believes that Chelsea are less self-confident than they were earlier in the season and, with so many key players in their 30s, points out that they are facing their own period of reconstruction.
Yet for all the determination to turn every negative into a positive, one defining question remains: Has Wenger's squad already been scarred psychologically by their recent history of disappointment at the decisive moments of the season?
After all, just as winning becomes habit so could losing when it matters most. Wenger is paid to instill belief in his player and so his public pronouncements are predictably optimistic, but he does seem sincere in his optimism.
"Look back," he said, "when you were 18 to 20 you were not completely the same man today. It is a process. I've seen Lampard aged 18 to 20 and Rio Ferdinand at West Ham. They went down to the second league.
"These (Arsenal) players at 20 went to the semi-final of the Champions League, some of them the final. They have the mental strength. I am convinced now that we have the right age to deliver.
"The statistics are history and every game is a new start. Life is there for change; life is there for movement." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Arsenal v Chelsea,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.0