Arsenal Vs Birmingham City-12:45 St Andrews
Barclays Premier League
Saturday, February 23, 2008, 12.45pm
By Richard Clarke
Saturday’s match at Birmingham represents, in Arsène Wenger’s words, the beginning of the “decisive period” in the title race.
With a dozen Premier League games to go, Arsenal hold a handy five-point lead in the table and victory at St Andrews would stretch that to eight before Manchester United visit Newcastle later the same day.
Not a bad position for a team supposedly wobbling after an FA Cup exit at Old Trafford on Saturday and a goalless draw with the Champions League holders in midweek.
That said, this period certainly proved to be decisive last year. The 11 days between February 25 and March 7 left Arsenal chasing only Champions League qualification after bowing out of three Cup competitions.
This year their expectations— like their football — are at a much higher level. But, speaking at Friday’s pre-match press conference, Wenger was under no illusion as to the importance of the next month.
“From 12 to six games, it is the decisive period,” he said. “First of all because it coincides most of the time with a period where most of the teams are still going for something.
“In the last six games, sometimes the points are easier to take. But, until the end of March, you play a team that doesn’t want to go down or a team that plays still for Europe, or a team that wants to save their season. In April, it eases off a bit.”
Birmingham are in the first of those categories though Alex McLeish’s side did take a draw away from Emirates Stadium last month; only the second team after Manchester United to do that.
Wenger has Alex Hleb (calf) and Emmanuel Adebayor (stiff neck) available after recovering from knocks picked up against Milan. The only addition to Wednesday’s squad is fit-again keeper Manuel Almunia but the manager would not reveal whether the Spaniard would be coming straight back in for Jens Lehmann.
All he was prepared to say was: “I have made the decision, yes. Come to the game and you will see.”
It is a little difficult to pigeon-hole Arsenal’s form right now. Perhaps the 4-0 drubbing at Old Trafford last Saturday would be classed, like the Carling Cup exit at White Hart Lane, as an unfortunate blip had Emmanuel Adebayor’s last-gasp header against Milan had gone in rather than bounce back off the bar.
But undoubtedly there is a certain comfort in returning to the bosom of the Premier League, a competition where it is easy to forget Arsenal have only lost once. And, given both side’s overall form at the time, that reverse at the Riverside Stadium can be possibly classed as the biggest blip of all this season.
At the end of the last couple of press conferences, Wenger has been asked if the Premier League crown was now Arsenal’s to lose. His response on Friday was telling.
“It’s our title to win,” he retorted immediately. “Why should we think it’s our title to lose? We are in a good position but it’s far from won.
“Two games ago we were second and now we are five points clear because Man United drew then lost. That shows you how quickly it can change so we have just to focus, relax and continue to play the football that we love.
“A lot can happen until the end of the season and I still feel we have shown a remarkable consistency. We are the only team that has lost only once since the start of the season, and in very special circumstances.
“We have belief and we have shown consistency until now,” he concluded. “But this is a difficult game because we have given a lot on Wednesday night and now we want complete focus for Saturday. We want to dig deep because this is a game where that will be needed.”
And, after Wednesday night, a little good fortune wouldn’t go amiss either.