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Wenger eager for home comforts

Arsene Wenger belives that the Premiership title race could be won by bagging crucial points at home.

sports Updated: Dec 10, 2007 12:27 IST

Home is where the heart of this season's Premiership title race is if Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is to be believed and the Frenchman will be relieved to return to the sanctuary of the Emirates Stadium next weekend.

There are few more dangerous visitors than Chelsea in a fixture which is already being billed as make or break for these great London rivals. But after four successive away fixtures Arsenal fans will share Wenger's joy that football is finally coming home.

Sunday's 2-1 defeat against a Middlesbrough team previously rooted in the bottom three ended Arsenal's unbeaten start to the league season. It also marked the culmination of a gruelling period of travel and a coincidental run of injuries affecting the creative core of their squad.

Wenger hopes France midfielder Mathieu Flamini and Dutch international forward Robin van Persie will return to face Chelsea but doubts persist over the long-term fitness of Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb.

"We lost the game against Middlesbrough because we deserved to lose it," explained Arsenal's frank coach. "We were jaded physically after four away games on the trot.

"I always have confidence in the team I pick and don't want to talk about the players who were missing. But at the moment we are without a lot of midfielders and that is affecting our creativity.

"It doesn't mean we should concede a penalty after four minutes. But it looks like the title race will be tight so the rest of the Premiership will be delighted," he added.

Wenger is right. At the peak of their 22-match unbeaten league run the Gunners had looked a class apart from their Premiership rivals and the competition for English football's top prize again seemed to revolve around a one-horse race.

Victories for Chelsea and Manchester United at the weekend, coupled with Arsenal's loss, have though breathed new life into what was looking like a tired procession.

So why the sudden demise of Wenger's previously unflappable youngsters? The danger signs were flashing loud and clear during a sluggish display in Seville and Aston Villa dominated the second half of their league game against the Gunners days later.

At Newcastle's St James' Park last Wednesday an early Emmanuel Adebayor goal was not enough to secure victory and the home team were ultimately unfortunate to come away with a 1-1 draw.

Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate was determined to capitalize on Arsenal's fatigue and glut of absentees. "We thought this might be a good time to play them," he later conceded.

"I watched Arsenal at Newcastle and knew we had a chance. In the end we fought and scrapped but we felt we had to play positively. If you play football against Arsenal then there's always a chance you can beat them. But we also know that they can destroy you because they are an outstanding team.

"There's no question that was the best performance of our season so far. Hopefully the players can see what they're capable of now. We keep telling them but they need the belief. Now we have a massive game at Derby next week."

It was only last season that Middlesbrough's chairman, Steve Gibson, criticized Arsenal for damaging the very fabric of English football by concentrating their recruitment policy on foreign players.

But a repentant Gibson explained: "I said it and I realized I was wrong.

"I rang David Dein (then Arsenal's vice-chairman) and asked him to convey my apologies to Arsene Wenger. I wish we could produce a team that could one day play like Arsenal."

On Sunday, Middlesbrough did that and more. Now former England defender Southgate must ensure his players display the same passion and endeavour against the lesser lights of England's Premier League.