Wenger relishing Chelsea challenge
Published 19/04/2015 | 23:41
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes next week's showdown with Barclays Premier League champions-elect Chelsea will provide his FA Cup finalists with the perfect opportunity to show they can challenge the best once again.
The Gunners stayed on course for a successful defence of their first trophy for almost a decade when defeating Reading 2-1 after extra-time at Wembley, where Royals goalkeeper Adam Federici spilled a low shot from Alexis Sanchez into his own net.
While it was far from a vintage Arsenal display, it was another example of how the current squad can produce the end result even when having to battle through a testing spell.
Any realistic hopes of a late title dash were all but ended, though, by Chelsea's 1-0 win over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, with Jose Mourinho's men sitting on a healthy 10-point cushion heading into the final six matches.
Nevertheless, following a run of nine straight victories and 19 wins from 22 in all competitions, Wenger is in no doubt his team have what it takes to challenge again next season.
"We struggled for a while. We have learned from our hiccups, we have matured a little bit," said Wenger.
"(Against Reading) when we had difficult moments, the team kept going. We don't feel sorry for ourselves, we just kept our gameplan.
"We were backs against the wall and responded well. The team has great spirit and togetherness and that helps.
"We have to show that now on a consistent level, we have the opportunity to do that next Sunday [against Chelsea]."
Asked if Arsenal now have the mentality of champions, Wenger replied: "Let's finish this season well. We have six games, a big game next weekend.
"I believe we have the spirit, which is encouraged by the results, so that is what we have to produce until the end."
Wenger accepted his team selection for the semi-final was "a bit risky", with full-back Mathieu Debuchy starting for the first time since mid-January following shoulder surgery, while there were also run-outs for Kieran Gibbs, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott, as a substitute in extra-time.
With such competition for places now within the Arsenal squad, Wenger feels players must take their chance when it comes.
"Debuchy is a French international. He must be capable to play in a semi-final against Reading. You wait, you wait, but at some stage you have to play a game," he said.
"Gibbs has not played for a while but he didn't suffer physically too much."
Centre-half Per Mertesacker could be a doubt for Sunday's game because of an ankle problem which forced him off during the second half.
Wenger accepts he will have some tough decisions to make on team selection between now and May 30, when Arsenal will face Aston Villa after their win over Liverpool on Sunday.
"You want everybody to be happy. It is part of the job and the most important is to get results, for the fans and everybody involved with the club," he said.
"The majority dominates the minority. Ideally you want respect and honesty."
Few of the Arsenal players, though, are likely to be complaining of fatigue or fitness concerns ahead of the return to Wembley.
"The final is better than any doctor," Wenger said.