Arsenal manager’s Napoli gamble represents shift in priority

Gunners manager wants the Premier League, and his line-up in Italy proved it.

It was a calculated risk which almost backfired, but Arsene Wenger’s decision to rest Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere for Arsenal’s crucial Champions League encounter with Napoli signified a shift in the manager’s priorities this season.

Wenger sent his side out at the Stadio San Paolo minus two of his most influential players. Ramsey’s absence in particular was surprising, with the Welshman in the form of his life this season. Wenger’s reasons were, presumably, two-fold.

For one, both Ramsey and Wilshere struggled to make an impact in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Everton in the Premier League. Ramsey, in particular, was in need of a rest after one inspirational display after another in the league and in Europe in recent months.

Of more significance to Wenger, however, was this weekend’s trip to Manchester City, Saturday’s early kick-off in which Arsenal have the chance to stretch their league at the top of the table to eight points ahead of the afternoon games.

So it was a brave move by Wenger. One which paid off, but only just, with Napoli hitting a brace of late goals and coming uncomfortably close to ending Arsenal’s European campaign.

Wenger could afford to leave Naples thoroughly satisfied with the evening’s outcome: Champions League passage has been assured, albeit with the caveat that Arsenal will now face one of the group winners having finished second in the group.

But more importantly, he has kept his power dry ahead of the trip to the Etihad. Arsenal head north with two of their key players refreshed and ready to take on a side which has been in ruthless form at home.

Wenger appears to have changed his focus this season. In previous years, the manager may have felt compelled to play his strongest possible side against Napoli, with the aim of going as far as possible in Europe and securing a top-four finish in the Premier League.

Indeed, it is less than two years ago since Wenger compared finishing in the top four as akin to winning a trophy, a statement which certainly raised a few eyebrows among Gunners fans.

That was perhaps down to the fact that, with the possible exception of his 2007-08 team, Wenger felt his side was well-suited to European football, but lacked the strength-in-depth and quality to mount a sustained challenge for the Premier League title.

That has not been the case this season, and Wenger’s shift in focus from Europe to the domestic league is clear. With Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil emerging as the heartbeat of an Arsenal side finally matching style with substance, the Gunners are mounting their first serious and sustained title challenge for five years.

No-one will be more determined to win the title than Wenger, and whoever Arsenal draw in the last-16 of the Champions League, his first priority will be the Premier League.

image: © Matt and Kim Rudge

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