Gunners have strong foundations despite Premiership slump - Terry Neill

BY JEM MAIDMENT Arsenal could not have chosen a worse time to record their most wretched Premier League run in nine seasons. A dismal sequence of just four points from a possible 15 has left the Gunners needing snookers. The bookies – and they rarely get


Arsenal could not have chosen a worse time to record their most wretched Premier League run in nine seasons. A dismal sequence of just four points from a possible 15 has left the Gunners needing snookers.

The bookies - and they rarely get it wrong - clearly believe their title hopes lay in tatters off the Fulham Broadway after last Sunday's shattering 1-2 reverse at Chelsea.

Some have put them out to 12/1 to win the title with seven games remaining - Manchester United, the leaders and reigning champions, are 2/7.

Now, for the first time this campaign, it's out of Arsenal's hands. It's in stark contrast to just six short weeks ago when, after a 2-0 win over Blackburn Rovers at the Emirates, all and sundry were left purring at Arsenal's magnificence - a first title since 2004 was surely in the bag.

Now they trail United by six points - with Chelsea between them for the first time this season - as they prepare for tomorrow's tricky trip to relegation-threatened Bolton Wanderers.

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Former Arsenal manager Terry Neill believes all is not lost - and says now is the time for men to stand up and be counted.

"It's going to be tough from now onwards, but - and this point must be made - it isn't over yet by a long way," Neill, who led the club between 1976 and 1983, told Wood&Vale Sport.

"Arsene Wenger treats his players like grown-ups, they are trusted - and that is the right way to manage.

"What I believe must happen - and, indeed, believe will happen - is Arsene will now transfer the responsibility to his players.

"It is time for each individual in the squad to ask himself 'what am I going to do about it?'

"It is now down to them - they are the ones who cross the white line and they, ultimately, are the ones who can still play a big part in where the title goes.

"They still must go to Manchester United and anything can happen but, nobody is under any illusions. It's going to be tough."

Now, Wenger's insistence that he did not need to bolster his injury-hit squad during the January transfer window, looks likely to cost him dearly.

While his starting XI can match any in Europe - just ask AC Milan - it is those warming the bench, waiting for the call, who can make the difference between champions and also-rans.

Take last Sunday. Chelsea boss Avram Grant's decision to call past Champions League winners Nicolas Anelka and Juliano Belletti from the bench with his side trailing to Bacary Sagna's 59th minute header clearly proved decisive and turned the tide in the Blues' favour.

Meanwhile, on the visitors' bench, the introduction of rookie Theo Walcott - with more promise than purpose - barely registered except for one fruitless burst in injury time.

Neill, though, insists the Wenger way is the right way - and rejects calls he should have splashed his reputed £69 million war-chest on reinforcements for his injury-hit squad.

"The strength in depth of our squad is not as good as Chelsea and Manchester United's - that is a fair comment," added the Northern Irishman, who also spent nine years at Highbury as a player.

"But we are looking long-term here and, let's be honest, at the start of the season if you'd told the average fan we'd still be in the race for the title with seven games to go they'd have been delighted.

"Arsene's is a long-term project that will, eventually, bear fruit.

"It is easy to spend money and be reckless but that is not the Arsene way or the Arsenal way - and, for me, that is definitely the correct way to do things.

"If Roman Abramovich was to pull the plug on his little toy - Chelsea - they'd be in a horrendous financial position. People don't fully appreciate the debt Manchester United have taken on.

But at Arsenal, the club is making money and has a very manageable debt. Our turnover is one of the highest in the world for any football club. We live in a society where everybody wants everything now. But I'd rather have a long-term plan and ensure the security of the club."

As part of that long-term project Wenger admitted again after the defeat at Chelsea that he is desperate to seal the signature of the club's most improved player, French midfielder Mathieu Flamini. Wenger was hoping to wrap up negotiations this month but there may be a small delay.

He is, however, satisfied the former Marseille star - who is out of contract in the summer and has been free to talk to other clubs since January 1 - will sign on the dotted line.

"We will meet soon with Flamini and we hope to sort it out," said Wenger, raising a smile.

"We are on course. Negotiations are going well and we hope to sort that out in April.

"He is committed on a daily basis. He behaves well and being a champion is about performing for your club until the last second of the season. That's what I call a real professional."

And after his bullish claims pre-Stamford Bridge that his side will win the league, Wenger appeared to have taken a reality check after Didier Drogba's double blew the title race wide open.

"Now we just have to come back and win games before we dream of the title," he said .

It was the first time this season he appeared, publicly, to admit it may not be Arsenal's season.

Next Wednesday's Champions League quarter-final first leg at home to Liverpool - one of three successive games with Merseysiders - has suddenly taken on even greater importance.