Arsenal need spirit of 'Invincibles' - Pires
It was on Monday, the day before a chastening defeat which raised further questions about the sustainability of Arsenal's title challenge, that Arsene Wenger made a claim that was guaranteed to spark a thousand pub debates.
"I think certainly numbers-wise and quality-wise, this is the best attacking unit," he said. "We had never so many players who could perform and score goals."
The benchmark for such comparison is obvious enough: 'The Invincibles' of 2003-'04, whose gilded attacking tip of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires were each voted into the top six of a poll of the club's greatest players.
One of that trio remains a daily presence at the club's Hertfordshire base and what is striking about Pires' assessment is that, despite sharing much of Wenger's faith in this group's attacking potential, he is candid about other priorities and concerns.
"When I see the names in the squad, the quality is very high," he says. "I don't know if it is better than the Invincibles but the most important for me is to win the title because this team can.
"They can play a very high level like the game against Chelsea at home but maybe they need more consistency. This is most important if you want to win the title, especially in the UK.
"Of course the games against Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Man United and Man City are very important but you also need to win when you play Watford, Sunderland and Middlesbrough."
Pires then repeatedly uses the word "fight" to describe what Arsenal must do both in matches but also internally during every training session.
Now 43, he still trains most mornings with the first team and breaks into laughter when asked to think back to his playing days and how things were on a daily basis with so many big characters at the club.
"I'm laughing because I cannot compare some players, like Martin Keown or Lee Dixon (to now)," he says. "We make a lot of difference in my time but this is the past; a great past for Arsenal.
"Football has changed, but in your team you need players like them - like Ray Parlour or Tony Adams. So maybe Arsenal they need - maybe - more fight. Or more English players."
To that end, Pires tries especially to advise the younger players. "I have a small role but it's a good role for me," he says.
"This morning, I said: 'OK guys you lost (against Watford) but you have a good opportunity on Saturday. Of course, it will be a tough game, but if you beat Chelsea you never know at the end of the season.' "
It is now almost 17 years since Wenger completed arguably his finest piece of transfer business by first selling Marc Overmars for £25m to Barcelona and then paying only £6m to make Pires his replacement.
Pires would be named Footballer of the Year when Arsenal won their 2002 Double and, as well as his part in the Invincibles team, he scored a winning FA Cup final goal in 2003 before ending his Arsenal career at the 2006 Champions League final. His son Theo is now playing for Arsenal's U-9 team.
Pires says that the intensity of Wenger's motivation and methods have never wavered.
"I know the contract expires at the end of the season but I think he is the person and the manager for Arsenal.
"I am a lucky man because every morning I can talk with Arsene Wenger.
"Every morning he is positive. Every morning he believes in his team, in his squad, in the quality. He bought this team, so he is always positive. I hope he extends his contract.
"I think Wenger is doing well with Arsenal since a long time but I understand some fans. Like me, I want to see (Laurent) Koscielny lift the trophy at the end of the season.
"Arsenal have changed the players but the philosophy for Arsenal and Wenger is the same. He now has a lot of possibilities. He has the money. Every summer I think he spends a lot of money. He bought a good team.
objective "He's still the same. He's like a train; he wants to get somewhere. The title. This is the objective for Arsene Wenger.
"Of course he said it is very difficult because Chelsea are on the top but everything is possible. I think Saturday is the final for the Premier League."
But how has the collective mood been affected by last Tuesday's 2-1 defeat at home by Watford?
"Everyone was upset about the result, first of all Arsene Wenger . It was a very good opportunity to get close to Chelsea because they drew but all the players are confident for Saturday. Everybody knows it is maybe the last chance if Arsenal want to win the title."
It is conceivable that the outcome of this title challenge will also determine the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Pires has no inkling about how talks are progressing but believes that Arsenal remain, as they were for him, an ideal stage for any attacking talent.
"They are both very professional," he says. "They give a good example to the young players. They are two leaders; maybe not for talk but leaders with the quality with the ball.
"I think for Arsenal, for the future, it's very important the club can keep Ozil and Sanchez.
"I want to see them sign new contracts because Arsenal are a great club. We can fight for the title." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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