Belfast Telegraph

Arteta tells Arsenal to keep fighting

By Paul Hirst

Mikel Arteta has warned his Arsenal team-mates that there is still plenty of work to do before they can be assured of a place in next season's Champions League.

Arsenal stretched their Premier League winning run to seven matches on Saturday when they beat Aston Villa 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium. The win, which came after strikes from Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Arteta, means the north London club are eight points ahead of fifth-placed Chelsea and three points above local rivals Tottenham, who are fourth. Arsenal have to play Chelsea and title-chasing Manchester City in their remaining eight matches but they also have games against QPR, Wolves, Wigan and Norwich.

Arteta has been delighted with the way his team have dragged themselves back into the top three after their erratic early-season form, but he knows any complacency could prove costly. "If anyone thinks it's all done now, then they are making a big mistake," Arteta said. "We can't take our foot off the pedal now.

"We have won seven in a row now, which is very difficult in the Premier League nowadays, and we have done it well, playing some high-tempo football, but there are some tough, tough games coming up in our last eight matches."

Arsenal looked as if they would be nowhere near the top of the table at the start of the season when they won one of their opening five League games and another bad patch at the turn of the year left some questioning whether Arsène Wenger was the right man to lead the club forward.

The Gunners squad is now brimming with confidence after their recent displays, however, and Arteta is happy that the Arsenal supporters have something to cheer.

"When you are winning, life is good and you can see that the fans are enjoying it at the moment. They deserve it as well because they were behind us when things weren't going right," he said. "Hopefully, we can finish the season strongly because we have a group of players and staff who really mean business."

Arteta, a £10m signing from Everton last summer, insists Arsenal have maintained a strong team spirit throughout the season even when their results were poor.

"To be honest, I was really surprised with the spirit when I came here – even when we were down it was so good," the Spanish midfielder said. "It is something you rely on because if you start blaming each other and shouting at each other it is not good.

"This group has always been positive, the manager has always been positive with the players and we have kept at it. We have the talent, we know we have the ability to win games and sometimes it is just about the balance in confidence. We have it all together now."

Arsenal will look to maintain their grip on third place when they take on strugglers QPR at Loftus Road on Saturday.

They received a boost yesterday with the news that their defender Laurent Koscielny is likely to figure in the London derby despite having to pull out of Saturday's win against Aston Villa in the warm-up.

"It was tendinitis," Wenger said. "I don't think it's very bad. He woke up with big pain. We tried to push him to play but in the warm-up he couldn't move. For the next game he should be all right."

Alex McLeish admits Aston Villa need to acquire greater strength in depth after being reduced to 11 fit senior players following injuries to winger Charles N'Zogbia and full-back Alan Hutton. The Villa manager had to field a substitutes' bench of six academy products during Saturday's 3-0 defeat at Arsenal. The absence of N'Zogbia and Hutton for up to four and three weeks respectively with knee and calf setbacks will place an even greater strain on his squad for the rest of the season.

McLeish said: "I had six kids on the bench at Arsenal, the guys that have come through the academy and one goalkeeper [Brad Guzan] who is over 25. It was a big ask going down to the last 11 senior players that we have and now we've lost Alan Hutton as well while Charles N'Zogbia's knee means he will be out for three to four weeks. Arsenal were able to throw on a couple of players worth £30m. Don't forget the disparity between us, in terms of quality and the strength of squad. Longer term we need more depth, absolutely."

McLeish will have to be mindful of reducing the club's wage bill when he comes to overhauling his squad this summer. He said: "There'll be a bit of prudence. We've still got to get to a level where Randy Lerner [Villa's owner] and the club want the wages. We've have to get to that level and then build from there. But I believe that there are players out there who can enhance the quality of the squad."

McLeish said he could understand the frustration of the fans at lying 15th in the table but insisted it was a period of transition.

He said: "Listen, I'm used to – having not been the manager until this season – expecting Villa to be in the upper tiers of the Premier League. I can understand that's what the fans want for their team. When you're wearing that jersey it's Villa, the heritage, but we are a team, definitely a club, in transition."

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