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'We never crumbled. We always finished strong'


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on the touchline during the Barclays Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium

On Wednesday, some Arsenal supporters booed at the end of a scoreless draw with the league champions Manchester United which left their side one point behind league leaders Chelsea.

On Friday afternoon, Jose Mourinho suggested that Arsene Wenger was a "specialist in failure". Over the next four days, Arsenal have more important things to deal with than the taunts of Mourinho or the insecurities of their supporters, even if both will shadow everything they do against Liverpool today and on Wednesday against Bayern Munich.

Arsene Wenger understood before Mourinho had said anything that this week will have a critical bearing on how this Arsenal side is viewed.

"It's like the guy who goes to the Olympics," Wenger said on Friday. "After four years, he prepares and it's one race that decides his success. That's it. I think we have done quality until now and that we just have to continue to focus on the quality and expect that the quality of our game will decide the results."

Mourinho has rediscovered his powers in the past six weeks and has been busy exercising them with a giddy lack of responsibility, like Superman when he alters history to bring Lois Lane back to life.

"We are professionals so we have to cope with everything from the crowd," Wenger said on Friday, having made his fear of failure comments which angered Mourinho even though it was not a response to a direct question about Chelsea.

Wenger insists Arsenal will always be ambitious and he has already found a way of rationalising the 5-1 defeat in Liverpool and the subsequent reduction of ambition against Manchester United. Of the seven teams that have played United twice in the league this season, only Swansea have taken fewer points than Arsenal.

Arsenal, too, have struggled against their rivals in the top four, losing heavily at City and at Liverpool while they again played not to lose against Chelsea immediately after the defeat at the Etihad.

Arsenal have beaten Spurs and Liverpool at the Emirates already this season but this week the tests will be more ferocious. Wenger's great achievement is that Arsenal are always in a position to compete at this stage of the season but the criticism is that they can go no further.

On this weekend last season, Blackburn Rovers beat Arsenal at the Emirates to knock them out of the FA Cup before Bayern arrived a few days later to give a display which demonstrated why they would soon be European champions. Arsenal, with no trophies left to fight for, didn't lose another game for the remainder of the season.

Arsenal were fifth in the table at the same stage last season and were further away from fourth place than they are from the top now so this year they can point to progress but perhaps not enough. Yet it is unfair to expect Arsenal to compete with the riches of Manchester City and Chelsea.

Wenger's January transfer window ended comically with the arrival of Kim Källström who turned out to be injured. Their summer mutiny was quietened with the arrival of Mesut Özil but the failure to sign a striker when they came close with Gonzalo Higuain and made a mess of a bid for Luis Suarez might have had more significance.

Olivier Giroud again demonstrated last Wednesday that he is not the player to turn a scoreless draw into a significant 1-0 victory and Wenger may be content to wait until the summer to strengthen that area of the squad.

Yet that is what Arsenal supporters expected last summer and the defeat at Anfield revealed a dangerous passivity in the team as they conceded two early goals to setpieces and lacked any sense of assurance or authority as Liverpool dismantled them.

Wenger defended his team on Friday, as he always does, and Mathieu Flamini's return from suspension today will bring some of the fighting qualities lacking at Anfield. In October, Wenger praised Flamini's ability to perform the "dark role" in his side and his return could be significant this week.

Wenger arrived at Arsenal's training ground on Friday morning to the news that Santi Cazorla was ill. He had intended resting Özil this afternoon but now he may be needed.

"I think against Manchester United he had quite a positive game, he was physically much sharper than at Liverpool," Wenger says. "At Liverpool, he was not at his level at all but that was true of all the team. On Wednesday night, I found him much sharper physically."

If Flamini can provide some structure then Arsenal will hope that they can compete in these two key games. Bayern are unbeaten in the Bundesliga and Wenger believes they are more offensively orientated under Pep Guardiola than they were in winning everything last season. This doesn't necessarily mean they are better.

"Look, how are they better? I don't know because they won the Champions League, the Championship, the Cup . . . and the World Championship. So I don't know what more they can do."

There will always be those who think Wenger can do more and right now they have reached that point when his critics will be ready to pounce. March was seen as the month for Arsenal to fear when they play the return against Bayern and league matches against Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City in 18 days but if they want to win a trophy, today could be as significant. If Arsenal stumble, Wenger will dispute that it means something is lacking in his team even if they could soon be looking at another year without a trophy.

"I think that's normal and part of the competition. If I go your way I would say it's more interesting to go out as early as possible so you do not have any disappointment in March or April. When you want to win you have to go for that stage."

But this Arsenal team will not collapse, in fact Wenger doesn't believe his teams have ever collapsed.

"We are much more mature than we were. People say we collapsed and crumbled – we never collapsed. We had some punctures and disappointments but if you collapse you finish tenth in this league. We never crumbled, we always finished strong and if you look at the number of points we have taken at the end of the season you will see that we never collapsed, despite some big disappointments. We went out twice against Barcelona, once against Bayern on the away goal, we have not been very lucky with the draws in the Champions League."

Wenger once said luck had "zero per cent" to do with winning football matches but they were different times. Mourinho's comments will be dismissed as part of the sideshow but they are more significant than that. While the tendency to view everything as a psychological ploy is excessive, it is equally misjudged to dismiss every psychological ploy as irrelevant. They can be tiresome but it doesn't mean they're irrelevant.

Mourinho's comments will amplify the noise around Arsenal which will amplify the pressure. Wenger believes that this side's maturity will be revealed over the coming days at the Emirates.

"You learn from failure, intelligent people do anyway," he says. "Some stupid people never. The definition of stupidity is always making the same mistakes."

Arsenal have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes or to make some new ones. Nobody, not even Mourinho, would accuse Wenger of stupidity.

Arsenal v Liverpool

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