x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Winning is the best remedy for title-chasing Arsenal

A trip to Birmingham City is a chance to get closer to the crown; as they revisit a scene of past trauma, it is another opportunity to get closure.

Cesc Fabregas, who has only just returned to the Arsenal team following his own injury problems, will be key in the Gunners' title run-in.
Cesc Fabregas, who has only just returned to the Arsenal team following his own injury problems, will be key in the Gunners' title run-in.

A title challenge can be both trying and therapeutic. For Arsenal, almost every match has been fraught at some stage. Yet, so far, they have emerged with a sense of greater well-being. Critics have been confronted, suggestions that they are too young, inexperienced and naive in combat, answered. Memories of some past setbacks have been exorcised.

Now, from both a footballing and a psychological perspective, comes another examination. A trip to Birmingham City is a chance to get closer to the crown; as they revisit a scene of past trauma, it is another opportunity to get closure. Arsenal's last visit to St Andrews was eventful enough. It was the beginning of the end of their attempts to top the Premier League two seasons ago, a day when the award of a 90th-minute penalty that resulted in James McFadden scoring Birmingham's equaliser prompted an on-pitch tantrum from the then captain William Gallas and when, in an incident that can still induce feelings of queasiness, Eduardo's season, and almost his career, was ended.

The protagonists from February 2008 are unlikely to command the spotlight again. Martin Taylor, the defender responsible for the challenge on the Croatian, has moved to Watford while Eduardo is likely to be confined to the bench today. A calf injury sidelines Gallas. Yet another broken leg, sustained by Aaron Ramsey at Stoke, has given Eduardo's injury renewed relevance. Arsenal's attempts to win the title for their stricken colleague have been admirable; they have collected maximum points since the Welsh teenager was hurt, whereas the striker Eduardo's misfortune seemed to stymie his teammates, who collected a mere four points from five games.

Nevertheless, Wenger insisted: "We did not lose the championship at Birmingham." However, he did admit: "We did not deal well with that particular incident on the day, with the situation we faced. Since then exactly the same happened at Stoke, and we responded in a very strong manner." A strong response is required again today. Birmingham have not been beaten at home since September and Alex McLeish's resilient collective have specialised in giving supposed superiors an awkward game. Arsenal visit St Andrew's without their first-choice central defensive partnership. Gallas's absence is compounded by Thomas Vermaelen's suspension after the Belgian's dismissal against West Ham last week. A constant in a changing team, he will miss a league match for the first time since his summer move from Ajax.

It confers a seniority upon Sol Campbell in a new-look duo. Arsenal's resources have been stretched for much of the season and today is no different. The proximity of Wednesday's Champions League match with Barcelona, the defending champions, prompted questions if the 35-year-old will be risked. Wenger, however, said: "The priority is Birmingham, beyond and above Barcelona." It is not a phrase that has been heard often.

Campbell, meanwhile, will have a different partner. "We will have the option to play [Mikael] Silvestre or [Alex] Song," Wenger said. The Cameroonian produced a display of remarkable assurance as Vermaelen's deputy in the second half against the Hammers. Birmingham's workaholic strikers Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome promise a tougher afternoon for Song and Campbell. In the subsequent reshuffle, Denilson will probably be required to anchor the midfield in Song's stead. Yet with Gallas and Robin van Persie back in training, Arsenal's injuries are easing. In attack, Nicklas Bendtner should overcome an ankle problem to start.

"I think he will be OK," said Wenger, meaning Eduardo is likely to be the striking substitute. If he is attempting to forget his last afternoon at St Andrews, so are Birmingham. "We have moved on and I don't feel I need to comment on it," said McLeish. "It is a couple of years ago. It is in the history books. Time moves on and I just brush all that stuff off my shoulder like a bit of dandruff." It was not the most sympathetic analogy. "We will try and play our football against Arsenal but we have still got to make tackles - just as the Arsenal team have got to make tackles," added the Birmingham manager. "We can't stand back and admire them. They are a hell of a good side."

They have a hell of a reason to win the title, too. sports@thenational.ae Birmingham v Arsenal, 7pm, Showsports 4