Put your foot in: Wenger
It is a sign of Arsenal's transformation from also-rans to title contenders that Arsene Wenger was refusing to play the victim yesterday.
The manager, whose side will overtake league leaders Chelsea with a 4-0 win over Burnley today, clearly believes that his talented ball-players are singled out for physical punishment by cynical opponents and not afforded the protection they deserve from referees, but was reluctant to say so.
The Frenchman has never shied away from controversy in the past, so it must be assumed that a wish to deny his players any excuse for failure is his ulterior motive.
Wenger's psychology may be working, because on a beautiful spring day at the club's training ground, there was no sign of Arsenal's squad searching for sympathy.
A feeling of defiance filled the fresh air. Aaron Ramsey's return from hospital has put a smile back on the faces of his team-mates, with Wenger even suggesting that the solidarity created by the double break of the right leg that the Wales midfielder sustained at Stoke last Saturday could benefit the Gunners.
If Arsenal do confound the country by going on to win the league for the first time since the historic triumph of 'the Invincibles' six years ago, then the final 24 minutes of that 3-1 victory at the Britannia Stadium may come to be regarded as the turning point of their season.
Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Arsenal cast aside their obvious distress and battled on to secure a hard-fought victory, the opposite reaction to their response to Eduardo's broken leg and ankle dislocation in the match at Birmingham two years previously.
Whereas that Arsenal team, led by the volatile William Gallas, lacked the emotional maturity to cope in adversity, Wenger is convinced that their successors are made of sterner stuff.
"The Aaron incident gives us one more reason to win it and I believe that is what the team did, in responding to the situation like that," he said. "This kind of incident can improve solidarity and I believe that is what it did on the day.
"You look at the pictures of the players when the accident happened -- it was terrible. The game was not the same for a while, but we recovered and finally won. It was a vital victory."
Wenger bridles at suggestions from pundits -- including George Graham, the former Arsenal manager -- that his side are too soft, but is determined not to rise to the bait.
He prefers to deal with facts rather than stereotypes and is more concerned by weak referees than dirty opponents, with the exception of those who make their foul intentions apparent beforehand.
"It annoys me, but I can understand it," Wenger said. "If you play football, do you like to be kicked? Nobody likes to be kicked. If somebody comes out before the game and says we have to kick them, for me they should not play the game.
"We've had three players this year who've had surgery as a result of tackles, Robin van Persie, Kieran Gibbs and now Ramsey. We're the only club in Europe who've had three players requiring surgery.
"Before the accident with Gibbs (during the home Champions League group game against Standard Liege in November) I stood up to the referee five times in the last 15 minutes and said, 'Calm this man (Eliaquim) Mangala down because he will kill one of our players'.
"It was so obvious. Standard Liege had lost the game and he was just looking to kick people. What happened? He broke the metatarsal of Gibbs. It could have been avoided."
Graham repeated yesterday his oft-cited view that Arsenal lack the physicality required to win the league, but it is a charge that Wenger repudiates.
Alexandre Song has developed into a midfield enforcer of considerable stature this season and Nicklas Bendtner has provided a more direct option up front since returning from a hernia problem in January, while Wenger is no angel, as becomes apparent when the red mist descends. Not many managers would square up to Martin Jol.
"I have had physical players," he said. "I love committed football, don't worry about that. The player who jumps out of the tackle will get a bollocking from me. I like players who put their foot in, but it has to be with a fair intention."
Wenger is less worried about his players' physical attributes than their mental strength, the great unknown as they approach 10 league matches that could take them to the title.
As much as any physical frailty, psychological weaknesses have undermined Arsenal -- a combination of inexperience, poor concentration and a lack of self-belief -- such as when they froze in both legs of their Champions League semi-final against Manchester United last season and threw away a winning position in the final seconds of their quarter-final against Liverpool the previous year.
Given a relatively kind run-in that begins with a home match against Burnley, such feeble travellers, today -- the derby at White Hart Lane scheduled for April 10 looks like being their most demanding fixture -- Wenger has already seen fit to warn against the danger of complacency, which would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
"The experience we have from this year is that there are no easy games," he said. "What looks sometimes easy before the game becomes very difficult during the game.
"I believe the key to our success now is being capable of focusing during every single game and penetrating ourselves with the idea that this could be a very tricky game.
"I am delighted because we're in a position where we always wanted to be and I am sure the team has gained belief and determination.
"We have a very good chance, but it is down to how consistent we can be. How much we prepare for every game, how much we turn up from the first minute until the 90th minute. That will decide our championship." (© The Times, London)
Arsenal v Burnley
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