LONDON, January 5 – Arsene Wenger admits Arsenal have a golden opportunity to underline their credentials as serious Premier League title challengers in Wednesday's crucial clash with Bolton.Just six weeks ago Wenger’s side seemed to have been exposed as title also-rans after Chelsea’s 3-0 win at the Emirates Stadium left the Gunners 11 points behind the leaders.
But surprising slips from Chelsea and Manchester United have handed Arsenal an unexpected opportunity to get back in the race which they have seized with an impressive run of five wins from six matches.
Now a victory over managerless Bolton in front of the Emirates faithful will lift the north Londoners into second place and within one point of table-toppers Chelsea.
Wenger is convinced his young, injury-hit squad won’t be fazed by the prospect of moving above United and increasing the pressure on Chelsea.
"We know Bolton will be a big game. We will prepare well and be up for it," Wenger said. "The victory at West Ham on Sunday will help us believe we can do it again."
For Arsenal to defy the critics and mount a prolonged title challenge would be a significant achievement for Wenger, who has seen his side decimated by injuries.
Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Gael Clichy have all missed large periods of the season and now Wenger loses rapidly improving midfielder Alex Song for a month as the Cameroon star flys off to the African Nations Cup.
Song’s sturdy presence in front of Arsenal’s occasionally flaky defence has played a significant role in the Gunners’ resurgence, but Wenger hopes French midfielder Abou Diaby can perform the role just as well.
"We will miss Song because he is an important player," Wenger said. "In the system we play he plays in front of the defence and we will have to find a new balance without him."
Diaby came off the bench to help Arsenal come from behind to beat London rivals West Ham 2-1 in the FA Cup third round on Sunday and he is sure to return to the starting line-up against Bolton.
The 23-year-old has a more attacking attitude than Song but he believes he can rise to the challenge of filling in for his team-mate.
"I will talk about that with the manager and if he wants me to play in that position, I am happy to do it. We will see what happens," Diaby said.
"Alex is a very important player in our team. Because he is going, we have to replace him and make sure we do the same job without him."
Being completely out-classed by Chelsea could easily have shattered the morale of a more fragile squad, but Arsenal managed to maintain their equilibrium and Diaby insists they deserve credit for showing a strong mentality under heavy criticism.
"We have the quality to beat every team and when we lost to Chelsea it was very frustrating, but we have won games since then and that is the most important thing," he said.
"We showed that mentally we are strong because we had big games, but we kept winning."
Wanderers can move out of the relegation zone with a draw on Wednesday, but the most important development in the club’s future will take place in the boardroom as chairman Phil Gartside pursues Burnley boss Owen Coyle – a former Bolton striker – to replace Gary Megson, who was sacked following last week’s 2-2 draw with Hull.
Coyle has held talks with Bolton and could be installed this week if compensation of around three million pounds is agreed, but caretakers Chris Evans and Steve Wigley will pick the team that takes on Arsenal.