ARSENE WENGER will risk losing William Gallas after putting contract talks with all his Arsenal players on hold for the foreseeable future.
The manager puts some of the blame for losing a lead in the title race two years ago on the disruption caused by key players trying to negotiate new deals or secure their departure towards the end of the campaign.
Wenger feels that some lost their focus in the run-in. Mathieu Flamini failed to accept his contract offer and moved on a free transfer to AC Milan. Emmanuel Adebayor signed an improved deal after a public flirtation with top clubs abroad. Alexander Hleb moved to Barcelona after the midfield player's agent spent months talking to Inter Milan.
This time, Wenger is gambling that Arsenal will win a trophy and keep Gallas, the France defender, who is free to talk to other clubs because he is out of contract this summer. Gallas's representatives have been in negotiations with Roma. Wenger has refused to confirm if he is willing to break the club's rule of giving players over 30 only a one-year contract.
Gallas (32) returned to training today after missing seven matches with a calf injury, but will not be fit in time for tomorrow's away clash with Birmingham City or against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final, first leg at the Emirates Stadium next Wednesday.
Sol Campbell, who has enjoyed an extended run in the team, and Mikael Silvestre are also out of contract after this season.
"I feel we are winning the battle to keep Gallas, but somebody could offer him a massive amount of money and I don't know if he will sign or not," Wenger said. "We will not deal with any contract now because we have games every three days and we will focus on our targets.
"The three players are all focused because they are at an age where they know they have to deal with that. It is not the same as when you have a player of 23 or 24. A player of 33 or 34 is in a normal situation with that. For a player of 23 or 24, it is an abnormal situation.
"We want to focus on the games. It is a crucial stage for us. Birmingham is the absolute priority. We have fought like mad to be in this position, so we want to take advantage of that."
Arsenal will return to St Andrew's for the first time since Eduardo da Silva suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula and the team wasted the chance to go eight points clear at the top of the table before Manchester United played away to Newcastle United the same day.
Nicklas Bendtner will have a fitness test on his ankle today, but is expected to start and Alexandre Song is likely to drop to centre back in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, who is suspended, but will return for the Barcelona match.
Wenger must assess Campbell's fitness after the Birmingham game, having claimed recently that the England defender cannot play more than once a week.
"We need to be solid to win this game," Wenger said. "We fight the whole season to be in there (in the title race) and this is a priority."
The Frenchman acknowledges that Chelsea have the advantage in the title race of playing fewer matches, now that they are out of the Champions League, and believes that Arsenal must win their remaining seven league matches to lift the title for the first time since 2003-04.
"Chelsea have a little physical advantage, but I know how hard it is to get over a disappointment like they faced in the Champions League," Wenger said. "They have a mental disadvantage and maybe a physical advantage in the longer run.
"It will be down to the team which is the most consistent. We know our route has to be perfect. To be perfect, it is important we focus on our performances. We have created a fantastic momentum and a great belief."
©The Times, London