'We thought we had done enough' admits Wenger
A glance at the Premier League table on the morning of March 1 is sufficient to understand why Arsenal, by Arsene Wenger's candid admission, might have thought that a top-four place was already theirs.
The gap to Everton was fully 14 points and, having led the Premier League for most of the season, Arsenal were still looking upwards.
Did people simply assume that an 18th consecutive top-four finish was secure? "Maybe, yes, we felt that it was done," said Wenger. Fast forward six weeks and the transformation is staggering.
Seven consecutive wins have put Everton two points ahead of Arsenal, who have fallen from title contenders to fifth following a run of only nine points from a possible 27. The silver lining is their progress to the FA Cup final but, ahead of tonight's league match against West Ham, Wenger has warned his players of the "vital" importance of remaining in the Champions League.
As well as a financial hit of about £25m and the increased difficulty of signing star players, there is the theory that Wenger himself would review his position if a proud record of never finishing below fourth was broken.
Wenger stressed yesterday, however, that he was still planning on a daily basis for the longer term. A new striker and midfielder are the summer priorities, with Arsenal hoping to make key signings early in the transfer window.
"We do have to (start planning for next season)," said Wenger. "We are really focused and working very hard. Every day we spend time on that."
It all sounded like someone who intends to sign a new contract regardless of what happens in the remaining six matches of the season.
The visit of West Ham is likely to be the most demanding physically on a number of levels. Saturday's gruelling FA Cup semi-final win against Wigan has only added to continuing concerns about injuries within the squad. Wenger is also mindful of the challenge of facing Andy Carroll. "We know that the goalkeeper will have to play a big part in the game," said Wenger.
With that in mind, Wenger may take a gamble tonight on the fitness of centre-back Laurent Koscielny, who passed a late fitness test yesterday.
Tomas Rosicky also returns after missing the semi-final, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Lukas Podolski have all been cleared to play amid various muscular complaints following the Wigan match.
With Wenger minded to leave Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey on the bench, Kim Kallstrom may make his first start since signing on loan in January.
"It's not welcome (to play so soon after Saturday) but it doesn't matter too much who it is and it's better to play them with a positive feeling after that semi-final," said Wenger.
"I believe physically we can cope. The mental part is so important in the recovery. It's more difficult for the players who have had no competition and are forced into an extension of their real potential like Ramsey or Oxlade-Chamberlain. They are players at risk."
Wenger, though, does believe that the recent injury crisis is easing and does not expect to resort to the "little bit route-one" tactics that ultimately rescued his team against Wigan.
"We were not creative enough to play so in the end we went for a bit more of a direct route but it's only occasional," he said. "We are slowly getting our players back. We have had a difficult schedule and the weight of a negative result, the mental aspect of a negative result in a big game, is massive."
Of the importance of qualifying again for the Champions League, Wenger said: "It's vital to me. What will be an advantage is our desire to play in this competition. Just to imagine how much we love it will help us. I would like them to concentrate on the pleasure to be in it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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