x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Loss will not alter Wenger's belief

It leaves a sour taste when depleted teams are fielded but it will be rendered more understandable if Arsenal are crowned Premier League champions after six years.

He is nicknamed Le Professeur but there is something of the evangelist about Arsene Wenger. He believes when others doubt, he remains convinced when there is evidence indicating his trust is misguided. It is often a strength and occasionally a weakness. Wenger believes in his players. It is why he ignores the regular entreaties to spend on others. It is why, too, his was a lone voice of defiance when Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-0 in November. Wenger was alone in insisting his side remained in the title race then; now even the sceptics are sure of their participation in it.

It is why Wenger fielded such a weakened team in the 3-1 FA Cup loss at Stoke. His nine changes involved a debut for Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and a second start for Francis Coquelin. Wenger believes his side can win the Premier League. With a game against Aston Villa tomorrow, Manchester United on Sunday and Chelsea and Liverpool in the following two weekends, the next month presents the sternest examination of their chances. It is why judgement on Wenger's cup selection should be withheld.

But, notwithstanding the 10 injuries he cited, a man of lesser faith would surely have fielded a more experienced group of players. As Wenger is regularly reminded, Arsenal have not won silverware since 2005. At this formative stage of the FA Cup, they arrived at Stoke knowing that Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton were already out while Tottenham face an awkward replay at Leeds (they were not to know that Stoke's reward for victory would be a daunting trip to Manchester City).

The opportunity was apparent, the FA Cup seemingly a better chance of honours than either the Premier League or the Champions League. Instead, the team chosen resembled a line-up he would name in the Carling Cup, rather than a tournament that he has won four times and uses less as a breeding ground for his youngsters. Were everyone available, Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin, Armand Traore and Craig Eastmond might only command a place in Wenger's third-string side. His central defenders were Sol Campbell, who made a valiant effort on his second debut, and Mikael Silvestre, who again showed why he ranks among Wenger's least distinguished signings.

It meant the FA Cup team lacked the qualities that propelled Arsenal, albeit briefly, to the top of the Premier League last week: the resilience to triumph on their travels, the understanding that Thomas Vermaelen and William Gallas possess, the character to recover from a goal deficit and salvage a result. It placed a huge responsibility on Cesc Fabregas, their match-winner on his three previous outings, to provide the inspiration others lacked. Even Wenger's triple substitution, introducing Andrey Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo, was a bid to avoid a replay between the meetings with United and Chelsea.

Wenger is often deemed a sore loser. By his own admission, such accusations are sometimes true. At the Britannia Stadium, that was not the case. If he is not glad to be out of the FA Cup, nor is he distraught. Nevertheless, it often leaves a slightly sour taste when such depleted teams are fielded in the competition, especially by those with such a pedigree in it. But it will be rendered more understandable if, after a six-year wait, Arsenal are crowned champions. United are in pole position and recent history suggests they are favourites while the season as a whole indicates that the advantage rests with Chelsea. But the banners at the Emirates Stadium say "Arsene knows". And now, as much as he ever has done, Arsene believes.