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Last Updated: Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:34 GMT
Arsenal prepare to reverse history
By Tom Fordyce

Do not be surprised if Arsene Wenger walks around on Monday with an enormous smile spread across his leathery chops.

Arsenal's players celebrate a goal
Together we stand: Arsenal celebrate another win

The future for Arsenal as the week begins looks as rosy as it has for many years.

Off the pitch, funding is in place for the new stadium at Ashburton Grove. On it, Arsenal are sitting pretty at the top of the Premiership, seven points clear of Manchester United.

And what will be pleasing Wenger more than anything else is that his team are beginning to give off an air of impregnability.

While Manchester United and Chelsea stumble, Arsenal stride on. This weekend's 2-1 victory over Claudio Ranieri's millionaire mercenaries might not have been stylish, but it was another win - making it six in the last six games.

In that same period, while Arsenal have taken the full 18 points on offer, United have won just twice, taking seven points from 18.

It is not so much history repeating itself as history being reversed. This time last year, United began their charge towards the title while Arsenal began to falter.

From the start of January to 22 February last year, United took 17 points from a possible 21 as they began to put pressure on Wenger's side. They then went on to win eight of their last nine league games as the Premiership title went back to Old Trafford for the eighth time.

Arsenal, by contrast, fell away as springtime approached. In an eight-game streak from the start of March, they won just twice, taking only 12 points from a possible 24.

Alex Ferguson in serious mood
Fergie's United have won just two of their last six games

Against the odds, Arsenal have reacted to last season's crushing disappointments by emerging tougher and more authoritative. And for that, Wenger must take real credit.

It is not often that a team who have lost the title in part through their own errors have managed to bounce back the following season.

Newcastle threw away a 12-point lead in 1996, splashed 15m on Alan Shearer in the summer and still had to be content with second place the next year.

Wenger was able to add only Jens Lehmann to his squad between May and February. Yet, working with the same players who were so dispirited at the end of last season, he has taken his team into pole position as the Premiership run-in commences.

It won't make Sir Alex Ferguson any happier, but it is reminiscent of the way United reacted to losing the title to Leeds in 1992 by coming back stronger the next year to win their first championship in 26 years.

Ferguson's catalyst in 1992-3 was the signing of Eric Cantona. While Jose Reyes has already made an impact for Arsenal, Wenger's heroes have been the established stars - Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.

Campbell's presence in the back four is key. Last season he was missing, suspended, as Arsenal's challenge collapsed.

This season he has played 32 games for the Gunners already, forming a formidable partnership with Kolo Toure, and his performances are the rock around which Wenger can construct his defence.

Meanwhile, up at Old Trafford, the absence of Campbell's England team-mate Rio Ferdinand is hitting United as hard as Campbell's suspension did Arsenal last spring.

The start of Ferdinand's ban corresponds with the start of United's current slump. Just when the Ferdinand-Silvestre central defensive partnership was beginning to look like a class act, Ferguson has had to start again.

Only a brave man or a fool would write off United with three months of the season still to go.

But Arsenal's momentum is gathering pace. With their next three league games being against Charlton, Blackburn and Bolton, it is hard to see that title charge slowing.




SEE ALSO
Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal
21 Feb 04  |  Premiership
Wenger plays it cool
21 Feb 04  |  Arsenal
Wenger hails ton-up Henry
11 Feb 04  |  Arsenal



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