Glimpses of 'Old' Wenger with Gunners in first

Posted by John Cross

It was a bit of a standing joke among journalists about Arsene Wenger press conferences before big games.

Well, in the last eight years, anyway. At his best, Wenger is one of the best interviewees around. He's sharp, witty and gives you a sound bite.

Except in recent seasons, there had been a marked change on the eve of big games. Instead, Wenger was extra cautious, guarded and gives little away, almost to the point of not giving journalists anything to write about.

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The last thing Wenger wants to do is to stoke the opposition, say the wrong thing and find his words in a headline pinned up on the opposition dressing room.

When Arsenal have played Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, whoever, Wenger has gone into full lock-down mode. That's what you do when you feel it's not a level playing field.

He used to give little away. You could see he got nervous when asked about City or Chelsea's wealth. Doesn't want to upset them. Respectful rather than looking for a row or inflammatory words.

So, it has been a refreshing change this season to see the old Wenger back. Little quips, confidence restored, ready to call it on with his rivals. Wenger clearly believes Arsenal are ready to compete again.

After all, Arsenal are sitting pretty with a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League table. Generally, the pace-setters are the team to be feared.

And yet Arsenal go to the Etihad on Saturday as massive underdogs. A draw would be seen by many as a victory. Few are giving them a prayer.

Maybe Wenger bemoaning the fixture list this week has set the tone with fans thinking even Arsenal are getting their excuses in first -- from Napoli on Wednesday to City on Saturday lunchtime.

But Wenger was a different animal on Friday, as he has been before big games this season.

Wenger reminded the assembled press that this wasn't just about damage limitation (after all, City have scored 29 goals in seven league games at the Etihad this season); it also was about Arsenal.

Arsenal have the best defensive record in the Premier League (yes, really), having conceded just 11 goals in 15 games. They also have strong attacking options themselves.

Yes, City can cut Arsenal's lead at the top. But what about Arsenal winning and going nine points ahead of City? They could use the Saturday lunchtime kick off to their advantage by taking the initiative and winning at the Etihad.

Arsenal have defended so well. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny look a great pairing. Mertesacker is tall and commanding, a great leader. Koscielny is wiry, tenacious and improving.

Kieran Gibbs is enjoying a great season, while Bacary Sagna may be fit to come back at right back.

Arsenal have a wealth of options in midfield and Olivier Giroud has been in fine form.

Meanwhile, they also got through in their Champions League group and await Monday's draw for the knockout stage. It will be a tough draw, but the Gunners are still alive in Europe.

So no wonder Wenger looked happier on Friday morning. Smiling, trying to be upbeat, even laughing about overcoming City's home form by trying to convince Manuel Pellegrini he was away from home.

And it's a lot easier to be cheerful when you are five points clear at the top than miles behind in the title race, as Arsenal have been in recent seasons.

That explains why Wenger has looked brighter and more optimistic recently. So don't write them off just yet while trying to figure out the margin of City's victory.

It will be tough for Arsenal. They let themselves down at Manchester United last month. When everyone was questioning whether Arsenal were the real deal, they didn't turn up until the second half, when United were already ahead.

Now this is the new test. Let's see where Arsenal are in this title race and whether their title aspirations are realistic.

It's up to them to prove a few people wrong. Wenger's smiles and good mood gives the impression that he doesn't need convincing. Even if most of the country seems to.

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