Even at 33/1, don't write off Gunners in Premiership race
PUBLISHED: 14:55 15 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:49 07 September 2010
BY JEM MAIDMENT Arsenal s recent upturn in fortunes has barely been noticed outside of north London, but with a spot of revenge in the air as they prepare for Saturday s trip to Hull City, the momentum is with those in red and white. Even if the critics continue to remai
Arsenal's recent upturn in fortunes has barely been noticed outside of north London, but with a spot of revenge in the air as they prepare for Saturday's trip to Hull City, the momentum is with those in red and white.
Even if the critics continue to remain unconvinced, Arsene Wenger's side are now out to 33/1 with many bookmakers, quite possibly the longest odds they have ever had under the Frenchman at this stage of the year, still with half a season's worth of football to be played.
But after stretching their unbeaten run in the league to eight games with that narrow 1-0 win at home to Bolton on Saturday, there is genuine reason for optimism.
A side with little confidence is beginning to grind out results when it matters, despite the absence of many key personnel.
Their topsy-turvy season first began to seriously unravel when Hull, somehow, left The Emirates with a 2-1 victory in September.
It had come from nowhere - just days after the Gunners had smashed six without reply past Sheffield United in the Carling Cup and with the side top of the Premier League after superb wins on the road at Bolton and Blackburn, two unpopular destinations in recent seasons.
Since then - and despite even better wins at home to Manchester United and away to Chelsea - they have been seen as an irrelevance in the race for the title as the new "top three" battle away.
How ironic then that Arsenal, unbeaten in the league since a limp 0-3 loss at Manchester City in November, could propel themselves straight back into the title race with three points at Hull.
Going into Saturday teatime's encounter at the Kingston Communications Stadium, Eduardo, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Tomas Rosicky are still absent, but will all return in the coming weeks and months, to considerably bolster the side for the title run-in.
Convinced the impossible can still happen? Former manager George Graham, like the bookies, is sceptical. "There are a lot of questions hanging over the Arsenal," he said this week.
"I think Arsene has problems that he's not had in his 12 years in charge until now. Do they have money to buy players? Are they going to buy in the transfer window? Are they physically and mentally strong enough?
They're a nice team who can play good football but do they have the consistency to make a serious challenge for the title? I don't think so.
"A few years ago they had a forward line including Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg. You look at the forwards now and ask if they are as good. No, they're not."
The fans certainly seem to agree on that last point.
Nicklas Bendtner, who turns 21 on Friday, has become the latest target for The Emirates boo boys, overtaking the redeemed Emmanuel Eboue, who is reported to be the subject of interest from Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho.
The Dane, who netted nine times in 40 games last term, came off the bench to volley a late winner against Bolton on Saturday, but Arsenal followers still need persuading he is worthy of a place in the team, with rumours continuing to link him with a move away from north London.
It was his seventh strike this campaign, but Wenger acknowledges the natives are restless with Bendtner, some mistaking his burgeoning confidence - and those pink/green boots - for arrogance.
"The fans judge on the game but the manager has to consider what he can display in one year," he said.
"He has spoken to me and he knows I have full confidence in him and people are sometimes surprised that I stick with him. But I believe in him.
"He can be decisive. For me when a striker is in the air, or on the move for a set-piece, he understands football."
And on his colourful footwear, his manager added: "I am not convinced by them, but if he wears the boots and puts the ball in the net I do not mind."
Bendtner, for his part, is talking a good game. "We have spoken among ourselves that 2008 was not the strongest, so we want to come out in 2009 and show what we are really about," he said.
"I have a few late goals now - as long as I can help the team win I will be happy."
A win by the Humber is a must, with Aston Villa three points ahead in third place and Everton also breathing down Arsenal's neck, just three points behind.
Hull, after their early season heroics pushed them into the top six, are currently in the middle of a reality check.
They have failed to win in seven league games - and have recorded just one in 13 - and have conceded 39 times in just 21 league games, including four to struggling Sunderland and five to an erratic Manchester City in recent weeks.
They have also failed to score in their past three games.
Impressive defender Kamil Zayatte is suspended after his booking in the 2-0 loss at Everton, their fourth straight defeat, on Saturday.
But former Spurs and England midfielder Nick Barmby, now at his hometown club, says it is not "all doom and gloom" - and has promised Arsenal will face a tough game on Saturday.
"We're a promoted side and we knew that we would go through a sticky patch," said the veteran.
"It is just about how we handle it now and how we respond in the next game.
"I know we will give Arsenal a good game at home."