Wenger issues call to arms
Arsene Wenger has dismissed Jose Mourinho's claim that Manchester City are overwhelming favourites to win the Premier League and insisted that Arsenal can make their most serious title challenge for a decade.
Arsenal have topped the Premier League at New Year only once since the 'Invincibles' of 2003-4 and, although Wenger admits that "everyone expects us to fail", he is now convinced that this team can win him a fourth title.
Mourinho has repeatedly identified City as the "big, big" favourites, even saying that they have "a responsibility" to win the title, but Wenger clearly suspects that his old rival is indulging in some mind games.
"Do you believe him?" said Wenger, smiling. "City are not more favourites for me than Chelsea or Man United. Yes, they have a squad of names who can win it but, at the end of the day, it is down to what we do on the pitch.
"Are they, at the moment, completely unbeatable? Not for me. They have lost a number of games as well away from home. They have played one more game at home. We have played one more game away. It is open."
Mourinho yesterday denied trying to play mind games with City and claimed that the sheer quality of Manuel Pellegrini's squad should mean that they are immune to outside influences.
Chelsea are only one point behind City who, in turn, are a further point adrift of leaders Arsenal.
Mourinho has regularly attempted to characterise his team as inexperienced and in transition compared to City's squad of ready-made winners.
It has looked like a deliberate strategy to pile the pressure on Pellegrini in his first season in English football but Mourinho looked shocked at the mere suggestion that he would bother with psychological warfare.
"You think I am? You think I'm capable of it?" said Mourinho, straight-faced. "See the squad, see the players, the number of goals, the strikers. Edin Dzeko is the third striker of Man City. Dzeko. Pfff. Do you think I'm putting pressure? Stevan Jovetic, the fourth. Pfff.
"I think they know how good they are and I think they know they are the favourites. I don't think they feel any pressure."
Wenger believes his team are ready to cope with the pressure and pointed to how Arsenal had amassed five more points in the past calendar year than City or Chelsea and 12 more than Manchester United. "People neglect that a little bit," he said. "Consistency is not coincidence. We had a little blip, I don't deny that. After Naples we lost six (goals) against Man City, that's where everybody questioned us. We recovered from that."
Asked if the last three games had convinced him more than ever that Arsenal can win the league, Wenger: "Yes. These players have a classy attitude, they are hungry, they want it and are ready to go for it."
Arsenal were last at the top of the table so far into a season in 2007-8 when they ultimately collapsed following the trauma of Eduardo's broken leg against Birmingham.
"This squad has more experience," said Wenger. "We had a great squad in 2008. We were a bit unlucky and a bit self-destructive. Overall I believe we are better equipped on the mental front."
Wenger also believes that in 2013 Arsenal have fundamentally shifted perceptions of the club.
"What we suffered from, for me is the most important, is we looked like a team with less ambition than the others," he said.
"We were in a position where we sold our good players and that we accepted being behind the teams who invested a lot of money. That has changed, and that has strengthened as well the belief."
Mourinho and Wenger are the only two remaining Premier League managers with past experience of winning the competition. "It will be very important," said Wenger. "I have to do things the right way, as much as I can. I am of course completely committed to do that. I have to be like the players. I have to perform."
One question that threatens to arise more frequently this year, however, relates to Wenger's own future. His contract expires at the end of the season and although he is adamant that the uncertainty has not affected the players, his intentions remain unclear.
"I want to do well for the club and feel that I can help the club to move forward," said Wenger. "My commitment is no question for this club."
Meanwhile, Wenger admitted that he is powerless to stop Bacary Sagna from signing a pre-contract agreement with a new club. The French right-back's present deal expires at the end of the season and he has shown little rush to agree a new one so far.
Wenger said that the player and the club were "not far" from an agreement and promised that he would "push very hard to get it done".
The reality, though, is that the longer it takes, the likelier it is that Sagna will leave in the summer, signing for Paris Saint-Germain or Monaco for a lucrative free transfer.
Wenger insisted that Sagna's commitment would not waver over the final months of his deal. "For me, that is not a problem because when you are a professional football player, you do until the last day of where you are, your best." (© Daily Telegraph, London)