LONDON, January 16 – Arsene Wenger returns to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium this weekend for the first time since he was forced to endure one of the lowest points of his 20-year reign as Arsenal manager.
The visit in December 2014 ended with Wenger and his players forced to run a gauntlet of angry Arsenal fans as they boarded a train back to London following a 3-2 defeat that left the Gunners in sixth place, 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea.
Those critical voices had largely been silenced by last May after a dramatic improvement during the second half of the season that was capped by the FA Cup triumph.
And having sustained that progress, Wenger’s side head into the latest round of matches positioned at the head of the table and with a growing belief they can lift the Premier League title.
Wenger is entitled to feel vindicated although the leading group is so tightly packed, Arsenal could find themselves in third position by the time they kick-off against Stoke if Leicester City and Manchester City have both secured victories 24 hours earlier.
The north London club would have established more breathing space had they been able to hang on to the lead at Liverpool midweek, eventually conceding an equaliser late on as the home side fought back to claim a 3-3 draw.
– ‘Consistency’ –
Wenger believes the challenge posed by Mark Hughes’s side will be equal to the one they faced at Anfield.
“It is a similar test to Liverpool where on our side we need the same intensity again four days later and the same desire and focus again,” the veteran manager said.
“What we have learnt in this Premier League? You think ‘How many surprises we have seen today? That will not happen again’. The week after it happened again, and again and again, since the start of the season.
“That shows the consistency of your focus, the consistency of your determination, will certainly play a big part in the outcome of this league.”
He added: “Looking at their (Stoke’s) results against the big teams, they have maybe more consistency.
“We will see that on Sunday. They can fight with anybody today, Stoke. They play out from the back, they’ve improved a lot in the quality of their build-up game.”
Alexis Sanchez is likely to return to the squad after finally recovering from a hamstring injury and new signing Mohamed Elneny could feature after arriving from Basel.
“Elneny is available for selection, I haven’t decided yet (on whether to play him),” said Wenger. “I have to see how everyone has recovered. Elneny is a possibility to be in the squad for Sunday.”
While he can expect an easier ride from his own supporters, Wenger is expected to again be targeted by Stoke’s fans after he refused to leave his dugout during last season’s meeting.
The Frenchman claimed the move was designed to take the heat out of the abuse he traditionally receives in the Potteries, dating back to his criticism of Tony Pulis’s Stoke teams.
However, it backfired last season as supporters directed more vitriol at Wenger, and Stoke manager Hughes does not believe the home fans will be deterred.
“That’s how it is. The crowd quite like, for want of a better word, a bit of baiting of Arsene at times. Sometimes he’s reacted, other times he hasn’t,” Hughes said.
“It’s all part of the game, the spectacle and it all adds to the mix.”
Record signing Xherdan Shaqiri will miss out for Stoke with a hamstring injury. Geoff Cameron and Marc Muniesa are also sidelined but Stephen Ireland and Phil Bardsley could return.