“The more the team progresses, it raises the level of expectation. We have to live up to that.
“All the [successful] teams have had to do it and I think it’s interesting because in some way it pushes your team to raise their level.”
A week ago Arsène Wenger was being asked if his side could beat the ‘big teams’; the clubs who may contend with Arsenal for trophies this season.
Now it is all about whether they themselves can take three such scalps in successive games.
Man United: Evans (back), Rafael (ankle), Cleverley (head), Welbeck (knee)
Arsenal: Flamini (doubt – groin), Wilshere (doubt – ankle) Walcott (abdominal), Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee), Sanogo (back), Podolski (hamstring), Diaby (knee)
Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the Premier League with that calculated 2-0 win over in-form Liverpool at Emirates Stadium last Saturday. In midweek they showed their ruthless side by becoming the first English team to win at Borussia Dortmund in almost 50 years. The victory also gave a huge boost to their chances of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions League.
On paper, the trip to Manchester United could be classed as the most straightforward of these ‘big’ three games. David Moyes’ men are down in eighth after a patchy start to the season and by the time Arsenal kick off at Old Trafford on Sunday it will be 252 days since Wenger’s men last tasted defeat away from home.
But arguably “Man United (a)” is still the most feared item on the fixture list. The intensity between the two teams has dissipated since the hyped-up but hyper-important clashes around the turn of the millennium. However Manchester United have only lost one of the last 12 league and cup fixtures between the sides and, more importantly, Wenger concedes a positive result in this fixture is a pre-requisite if his side are going to win the title – as 1998, 2002 and 2004 all showed.
“It is true yes because it’s always a game that attracts a lot of focus, attention, analysis and certainly confidence for the rest of the season,” he said.
“We always feel it’s a hurdle for our team that you have to get across in a convincing way to completely feel our confidence is at a good level.”
In the Premier League under Moyes, Manchester United are P10 W5 D2 L3 and have only just been able to string two wins together. But, crucially, Wenger believes they are beginning to gel up front.
“Man United started a little bit slowly,” he said. “But recently they have been more consistent. They are still relying on their offensive efficiency that they did not have so much at the start of the season.
We have had two clean sheets now in two big games and you never do that without a huge contribution from your centre backs. It’s a mixture of quality but as well a calm confidence with no panic in very heated situations
“Why? Because there was a little bit of unrest maybe with Rooney and he was not in top form.
“Now he has found his form again you see that they start to score goals. Rooney and Van Persie are a very dangerous partnership because both can score, both are complete players and both can give assists. Certainly one of the keys for us on Sunday will be to keep this partnership quiet. First in stopping others feeding them but, as well, we will need our back five to be very efficient.”
That quintet were the foundation of the victory over Dortmund with, according to the manager, Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny having their best game as a duo.
“It was,” agreed Wenger. “We have had two clean sheets now in two big games and you never do that without a huge contribution from your centre backs. It’s a mixture of quality but as well a calm confidence with no panic in very heated situations. These two are at their peak in these kinds of situations.”
You can expect a similar temperature at Old Trafford. Even when the Premier League positions were reversed, this game had something special.
Sunday’s fixture, however, could be season-changing for both sides.
Arsenal’s lead means that they will be top whatever happens. But victory would turn last week’s question by 180 degrees.
Not can Arsenal beat the ‘big teams’.
But can the ‘big teams’ beat Arsenal?