London (AFP) – Arsene Wenger refuses to call time on Arsenal’s fading Premier League title challenge as the Gunners boss tries to spark a late rally from his inconsistent side.
Wenger’s team host Crystal Palace on Sunday having seen the gap between themselves and leaders Leicester increase to 13 points last weekend after a frustrating draw at West Ham.
It added to Wenger’s sense of disappointment that Arsenal ended up fortunate to claim a point having led 2-0, although the Gunners manager maintained his positive stance by insisting his side deserved praise for fighting back after falling behind.
It will take more than hard-fought draws to increase the pressure on Leicester and second-placed Tottenham, however, and anything less than victory against Palace will surely convince even Wenger the challenge is over.
“For everybody it is tight, and we have to look behind us because everybody is chasing,” Wenger said.
“There can still be twists and turns until the end and everyone is fighting to put teams in front of us under pressure.
“We need a strong run at home now and I think that is what we want to do. It is perceived that the championship is over but I don’t think that completely even if Leicester are in a strong position.
“I think we have to continue to fight until the last minute of the season.”
Realistically, Arsenal’s main aim now must be to guarantee a top four finish.
Then the Gunners can turn their attentions towards reeling in Tottenham and maintain their record of dominance over their hated north London rivals during Wenger’s 20-year reign at the club.
Palace’s recent improvement in form has seen Alan Pardew’s side move 11 points clear of the relegation zone and Wenger is wary of the south London club’s attacking threat, including former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Adebayor.
– Offensive force –
“Crystal Palace should now be completely safe but they still might need one or two points. I think they have nearly got out of their relegation problems,” Wenger said.
“They have a lot of potential offensively with individuals like Bolasie, Zaha, and Adebayor.
“They have a big offensive force. We need to rectify the fact we conceded goals at West Ham and come back strong defensively.”
Jack Wilshere will not be included in the Arsenal squad despite coming through two games for the club’s under-21 side as he continues his recovery from a broken leg.
And Wenger insists he has yet to decide whether to bring back goalkeeper Petr Cech who was left on the bench at West Ham despite recovering from injury.
“Petr Cech is our number one but David Ospina is also a fantastic goalkeeper. His numbers are absolutely exceptional in the Premier League,” he added.
“I felt that Petr Cech had only had one week of training and was only just coming back.”
Five points from the last three games, including a first win in 15 league games, have eased the pressure on Palace, whose thoughts are also focused on the upcoming FA Cup semi-final with Watford.
Pardew has yet to decide whether Adebayor or Connor Wickham will lead the attack but forward Dwight Gayle is out after being forced out of the midweek draw with Everton at half-time.
Pardew, though, believes midfielder Jason Puncheon could be key to his side’s chances at the Emirates Stadium.
“He’s a Premier League player, he’s got a lot of experience and he has that gift of being able to travel with the ball, something that Arsenal players all have,” Pardew said.
“Punch has that for us and it will be important on Sunday that he keeps hold of it and makes the right decisions for us.”