Van Persie set for return
'Arsenal's Messi' to give Wenger massive boost
THERE is no football manager in the Premier League who does not reach the end of the season without his own personal list of 'what ifs'. Injuries have ensured that Arsene Wenger's catalogue of woes is particularly lengthy and it is not difficult to imagine which regret looms largest.
On November 14 last year, Robin van Persie tore ligaments in his ankle while playing in a friendly for Holland and, from that moment, Arsenal's season has gone from being defined by some extraordinarily free-scoring football to a dogged refusal to concede defeat in the title race.
Van Persie makes his long-awaited comeback in tonight's North London derby against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane, with Wenger not alone in contemplating what might have been.
"He had started to compete as one of the best players in the world and suddenly he was out," the Arsenal manager said. "Would we have been talking about him alongside Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney if he had not been injured? You would have talked about Van Persie in that company; of that I am sure.
"He can give a final ball, score goals and is good on set-pieces. He is a leader because he has a football brain and is a football thinker. He has matured a lot in the last three or four years as well."
Statistics can sometimes be misleading but, regarding Van Persie, there is little room for doubt. With 36 goals in 11 league games, Arsenal had been ploughing along at a ratio well in excess of three goals a game until Van Persie's injury. Since then, in double the matches, they have scored only three more goals.
Wenger did not speculate on the difference Van Persie would have made but, with his young team still in reach of Chelsea, he could have convincingly argued that Arsenal would now have had a commanding lead. There is, however, optimism regarding Van Persie's ability to get back to his best.
His return is also particularly timely given that Arsenal's other two most creative players, Cesc Fabregas and Andrei Arshavin, are both injured.
"When I pick a player it means he's fit and sharp," Wenger said. "Robin lacks match practice, but physically he's fit. There's always a gamble but he's stronger and looking good for the future.
"What is most satisfying for me is that, in training, he looks as if he hasn't been out. Overall, I don't believe we have been unlucky this year. I believe the team has shown unbelievable mental strength and has shown it has made a big step forward."
Alex Song has also been ruled out of both tonight's match and Sunday's trip to Wigan, with Wenger adamant that his team must win their final five matches to overhaul Chelsea. With fresh reports from Spain regarding Barcelona's interest in Fabregas, Wenger stressed that his captain was happy and, following his broken leg, had not played his last game for the club.
"With the players under contract, we decide," Wenger said. "We are not under any financial need to sell. Some people try to be specialists at making players unhappy. But, up until now, all the players that have left wanted to come back so that means they are not as unhappy as they sometimes look.
"I believe that this team is on the way up and we don't work for four or five years with young players, let them come through and then sell them when they are ready to perform."
Wenger yesterday also expressed his sadness at news that Nina Bracewell-Smith wanted to sell her 15.9pc stake in the club, but stressed that he did not expect any new investor to change the way he already works.
"The philosophy of the club will not change no matter who buys her shares," he said. "We will balance our budget with our natural resources. Nina has always been a great support to me. I'm grateful for that." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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