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Old matador Wenger gets ready to draw more blood

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Arsene Wenger returns to Anfield with more than a hint of arrogance

Arsene Wenger returns to Anfield with more than a hint of arrogance

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger returns to Anfield with more than a hint of arrogance

IF the Premier League was a bullfight season there would be much talk of the 'Dangerous Winter' – a series of hand-to-hand battles around which whole careers might just come to revolve.

Yet who will continue to wear the most luminous suit of lights? Astonishingly, there is the growing sense that it might just be Arsene Wenger.

The week started with the Special One and the Engineer, and we all know who was awarded the ears, the hooves and the tail. It ends at high noon at Anfield tomorrow with all eyes on the superb, resurrected cape work of Wenger.

We will know a lot more about the depth and the strength of the old matador's renaissance in a month's time after the second of two duels with Liverpool, one with Manchester United and the ultimate Champions League test against Bayern Munich. For the moment, though, Wenger can be excused a hint of the trumpet blasts and sunshine of his old glory.

It may be 2005 since his last trophy but already he has challenged brilliantly the idea that he has been doing no more than stirring some old embers of success. There has certainly been some concession of this before the Anfield action.

Brendan Rodgers has reason for a little hubris of his own but he is candid enough about his team's place in the extraordinary battle to be the last big team standing. It is a goal simply beyond his resources, the Liverpool manager agrees. "Even though we have competed right through the season, over the last few seasons some very powerful squads have been built," says Rodgers. "So I wouldn't say the title was for us this season."

Rodgers said this on the bounce from Mourinho's tactical masterclass against City but we can also be sure he had the extraordinarily resilient Arsenal in mind.

They are, after all, the team who simply refuse to go away. Ambushed by Aston Villa on the opening day, dismantled by City and beaten by, of all people, Manchester United, not so long ago, they could have been a losing, deeply neurotic force by Christmas. Instead they insist on growing strong at the broken places, and Wenger can hardly subdue his celebration.

After enjoying last weekend the re-appearance, and two goals, of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, one of those English players he was once said not to be able to produce, he now eagerly anticipates the possible return of another at Anfield, the precocious but injury-plagued Jack Wilshere.

Wenger says: "Jack Wilshere has become a very important player for us, especially in this kind of season when the big games have become so vital.

"In the Premier League now every point is vital. But I (have) enjoyed this and we have fought very hard until now to be in that position. So I say to my players, "Let's just enjoy it and give it our best.'

What Wenger plainly no longer has to do is look in desperation for the kind of leadership and inspiration which appeared to have flown away with the disappearance of players of the quality of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas.

If City and Chelsea have impressive armouries, who continues to lead the table, who has better match control terms than that produced by the most influential signing of the year, if not the decade, Mesut Ozil?

Certainly it is quite hard to believe that Wenger has regained so much difficult terrain since his move for the brilliant but deeply problematic Luis Suarez was rejected by Liverpool last summer.

PERIPHERAL

He has the nerve to dismiss the whole affair as a peripheral misadventure never to be repeated, insisting: "The Suarez bid was not to replace Olivier Giroud. We never wanted to do that. We always had complete confidence in him.

"It's true that sometimes you do have regrets when some player who played for you is scoring goals and doing well somewhere else. But Suarez was never our player. It was a situation that didn't come off and that is it."

There is, of course, a distinct possibility that Wenger's marginalising of Suarez might bring catastrophic consequences tomorrow.

Suarez scarcely needs the provocation of being placed in the shadow of Giroud to produce his most dramatic form. He leads the Premier League's scorers by a stunning margin of eight; he and Daniel Sturridge (five goals in his last four games) continue to rejoice in their easy capacity to rip apart any defence placed before them.

However, Rodgers is probably wise to seek the shadows as he pursues, most practically, the Champions League place which the iconic Kenny Dalglish this week suggested was his for the taking. If he has a superb cutting edge, Rodgers is still plainly three or four players short of truly competing with Chelsea, City and, most certainly, Arsenal.

Though Jordan Henderson has increased his impact notably this season, there are still serious doubts about whether he will consistently announce himself as a player of the highest quality. Philippe Coutinho has had spectacular moments but from him too there is a need for more evidence of a hard purpose.

Rodgers requires the return of defenders Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and, especially, Enrique after last week's pratfall by the struggling Kolo Toure at West Brom. That was evidence of team which, while progressing with much promise on some front, was still essentially unformed.

Wenger, no doubt, fed hungrily on such a sign of weakness. He comes to Anfield with more than a hint of that old arrogance. He knows he has, more than at any time in nine years, a team fit for all seasons. Naturally, he is once again keen to show the quality of his cape work.

Irish Independent