Arsene Wenger believes Arsenal can still enjoy an uplifting finale to their traumatic season if they maintain a unified front starting at Crystal Palace on Monday.
Wenger has been under siege like never before in recent weeks as angry Arsenal fans demand the Gunners boss be forced to step down after yet another underwhelming campaign.
A section of Arsenal’s support staged their latest protest against Wenger during Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over West Ham United as they stayed away from their Emirates Stadium seats until the 13th minute to signify the number of years since they last won the Premier League.
It is also 11 years since Arsenal reached the Champions League final, with the chances of lifting either of those major trophies appearing further away than ever after their domestic travails and a European humiliation against Bayern Munich.
Wenger has so far refused to confirm whether he will sign an extension to his contract, which expires at the end of the season. “I cannot tell you now (if a decision will come before the end of the season) because I don’t know, I am focused on our next game,” Wenger said this week.
The endless speculation about the beleaguered 67-year-old’s future has been an unwanted distraction for a team already destabilised by the failure of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to sign new contracts.
Ozil said on Sunday that he won’t make a decision on his future until Wenger’s situation is clearer.
“It’s not just important for me, but for the whole club,” Ozil told the Mail on Sunday. “It’s important to know if he stays or if he goes. We need to think towards next season. “He’s very important. In my career I’ve always made decisions not just because of clubs, but managers too.”
Aware of the depressing vibe around his club, Wenger acknowledged the West Ham win was essential to restore morale and he hopes the way his players stuck together will be repeated at Selhurst Park in another crucial London derby.
“Look, I feel we came out of a very difficult period and what we have shown is that we are united and focused and determined to do things right again,” Wenger said.
“That was questioned for a while and I think we gave the right response. We have to show that focus now until the end of the season. “There’s still a lot to fight for. That is what’s at stake basically.”
– Toughest schedule –
Wenger’s answer to critics who claim the second half of his 21-year reign has been a failure is usually to point to his record of leading Arsenal into the Champions League for the last 19 seasons.
But even that record is in danger, with Arsenal in sixth and only the top four going into Europe’s premier club competition.
Both Petr Cech and David Ospina are likely to miss out again on Monday due to injuries, so Emiliano Martinez will start in goal for Arsenal after making his first appearance since 2014 against West Ham.
With fixtures ahead against Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Manchester United, Palace face the toughest schedule of any of the teams fighting for survival.
Sam Allardyce’s side saw their four-game winning streak come to an end in a 3-1 defeat at Southampton on Wednesday and they will be without a host of players including France midfielder Yohan Cabaye due to injury on Monday.
But Allardyce, who has relished upsetting Wenger in the past, is hopeful Palace won’t crack. “It’s a tough run-in and it (the relegation fight) is going to go down right to the wire,” Allardyce said.
“It’s about who can hold their nerve. That’s normally the big key to success when the pressure is on you at this level. “I think eight points will be enough. It’s important that we don’t lose against Arsenal.”
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