Arsène Wenger has accepted that his Arsenal team have a "mental hurdle" to clear as he prepares them for the derby showdown against Chelsea upon which he feels their Premier League title challenge could hinge.
It feels like an age ago that Arsenal were playing their last game, the 1-0 defeat at Manchester United but, ahead of another meeting with an elite rival, the questions about their fragility resonated with thumping clarity. Even the club captain, Cesc Fábregas, suggested they had bottled it at Old Trafford while Wenger said: "We played with a little bit of restriction – a little bit of a handbrake feeling in the team."
Wenger is mindful of Arsenal's dismal recent record against Chelsea and the league's other big guns, just as he has grown accustomed to playing the role of psychological cheerleader in the countdown to the meetings against them. But opportunity knocks once more at Emirates Stadium and Wenger is ever hopeful of the breakthrough result.
"I believe that my players are quite solid mentally but they have not won yet and that is a mental hurdle everyone in life has to get over," he said. "You want to win and to show that you can win and for that, you need to be tough and that makes you stronger. But you need to believe.
"I'm convinced now that we have the right age to deliver and that's what we want to show. But the competition is of a very high level. You have Man City, Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham – plenty of teams who can deliver."
Chelsea have been the epitome of mental strength in recent years but Wenger pointed out that players such as Frank Lampard, the midfielder, were different animals when they were in their late teens. "It is a process," Wenger said, "how solid you are mentally at a certain age. Life is maybe not so beautiful as you think it is at 18."
Wenger can be cheered by a glance at the league table. He is already on record as saying that he feels fortunate to remain in title contention after suffering three home defeats and he has been keen to point out that his team still have their home games to play against the biggest clubs. Faltering home form is easier to rectify than that on the road.
"We need a big win, of course we do and Chelsea can be an opportunity," Wenger said. "To be in a race for the championship, we know that to beat Chelsea at home, Man United at home and Man City at home will be vital. Beating Chelsea is certainly something that will speed up the maturing of the team."
It is also a source of hope and inspiration that Fábregas will start for the first time since he limped out of the Champions League tie at Braga on 23 November with the latest recurrence of his hamstring injury. The midfielder made his comeback as a 64th-minute substitute in the United defeat two weeks ago but he struggled to adapt to the rhythm of the game and, in keeping with the theme of the day, Wenger suggested that his problems were as much mental as physical.
"It is more a restriction he has in his head," Wenger said. "So we have to move the hamstring [injury] out of his head. That comes with practising every day. Physically, I think he is ready. In winter, one of the disadvantages when it is so cold is that for the guy who comes on with 25 minutes to go, it is not easy to get into the flow of the game. He had a little bit the mental problem but now, it looks to have gone.
"It is hard to overcome [mentally] if you have a recurrence of an injury because it plays a part until you get rid of it completely by reassurance. But Cesc has two more weeks of practise behind him and in the last two or three days, he has looked sharp."
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