Saturday 20 January 2018

Superb Gunners intensify Wenger's title focus

Arsenal 2 Wolves 0

"The time of truth" is how Arsene Wenger has described this section of the season and, increasingly, it would appear that it is his Arsenal team and Manchester United who are the Premier League's two real deals.

Both suffered significant setbacks last week but, as has generally been the habit of any club managed by Wenger or Alex Ferguson, the response has been swift, emphatic and convincing.

Arsenal had the pressure before they kicked off on Saturday of knowing that Manchester United had extended their lead to seven points and it was also their first match since the trauma of losing a four-goal lead against Newcastle. Then there was the potential distraction of their mouthwatering Champions League clash against Barcelona next Wednesday. Yet none of that cluttered the minds of the players and the 2-0 scoreline ultimately flattered only Wolverhampton Wanderers. The respective shots tally of 17-2 in Arsenal's favour told an accurate story.

"There was a murder going on out there and we were the recipient; they have slapped us and I don't have one complaint at all," said Mick McCarthy, whose Wolves team returned to the bottom of the table.

Wenger always has the look of a man carrying the entire hopes of a club on his shoulders, but there seems even to be an added intensity just now. He genuinely does still believe that Arsenal could -- and perhaps should -- overhaul Manchester United.

"We have outstanding quality, a major chance to win the league, and the way we behave until the end of the season will determine that," he said. "I'm convinced that if we win our home games we can win the championship."

Wenger's belief rests upon two facts. Firstly, he is acutely aware that his team have the more appealing run-in, with Manchester United still facing two matches against Chelsea and a visit to the Emirates on April 30.

The other great source of comfort must be the sight of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie peaking at the best possible moment of the season.

Van Persie, in particular, has been scintillating since the turn of the year and these two goals have taken his tally to 10 goals in seven Premier League games.

The pattern of Saturday's match was immediately established as Alex Song and Jack Wilshere assumed complete dominance of central midfield.

For the first goal, Fabregas displayed his vision by lofting the ball into the path of Van Persie, whose first-time volley was deftly directed just past Wayne Hennessey's outstretched hand.

A flurry of further Arsenal chances followed. Van Persie's corner eluded the entire Wolves defence, but Andrei Arshavin completely miscued his volley with the goal at his mercy.

Hennessey then saved superbly from Theo Walcott before Richard Stearman blocked Fabregas's follow-up.

The relentless Arsenal pressure continued throughout the second half as Wilshere, in particular, grew in influence and adventure. Walcott wasted one particularly inviting chance but then did provide the assist for Arsenal's second. There was a hint of controversy as Van Persie was clearly offside when Fabregas made the initial defence-splitting pass to Walcott.

The Dutchman, however, simply checked his run and was then onside when he collected Walcott's pass to seal Arsenal's victory.

For Wenger, it was both the ideal response to last week's 4-4 draw against Newcastle and also the perfect preparation for Barcelona, when Samir Nasri has a chance of returning to the squad.

Of the many sub-plots on Wednesday, there will be the opportunity for Wilshere to compete on the same stage as the world's best midfielders in Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. Wenger, though, has urged patience. "I think the pressure on him comes a bit too quickly," he said. "Jack's success depends on being given time to play. At 19 you do not want him to feel as if the future of English football lies on his shoulders. I would like him to be protected a bit from the immense pressure you are under when you play for England.

"When you play against opponents of Barcelona's quality, you need all 11 to be at their best. We will play certainly the best team in the world. We are not favourites, but we believe we can do it."


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