Owen Coyle: Bolton Wanderers have laid foundation to stay up
Owen Coyle, the Bolton Wanderers manager, was glad yesterday morning his team was free of the "stigma" attached to being in the Premier League relegation zone – but stressed they must keep up their recent good form to ensure that is still the case at the end of the season.
Wanderers pulled themselves out of the bottom three with an impressive 3-1 home victory over Liverpool in their last league outing. However, Coyle knows plenty can happen in the remaining 16 games and, after a run of only two defeats in their last nine games in all competitions, he wants to maintain that momentum.
"I think there is always a stigma involved in being in those [relegation] positions," Coyle said ahead of tonight's home game with Arsenal. "But the important time to be out of the bottom three is after the last game of the season, ask any manager and they will tell you that.
"We have now given ourselves a foundation and a platform to continue the good work that we have done in the last month and a half or so," he added, "but to do that we need to be at our best. The Premier League is unforgiving and you have to be at your very best every time you cross that white line."
Like Bolton, Arsenal have had major injury problems to contend with this season, with news emerging last week that key midfielder Jack Wilshere – who spent a loan spell with Bolton in 2010 – had suffered a setback in his attempt to recover from an ankle injury sustained in the summer. In his absence the Gunners have been out of the title race and are facing a battle to finish in the top four.
Manager Arsène Wenger has been frequently criticised and the London outfit travel to the Reebok Stadium – where they were beaten 2-1 in April – having lost their last three league games in a row.
However, although there is certainly cause for optimism on Wanderers' part, Coyle pointed to Arsenal's dramatic comeback from 2-0 down in their 3-2 FA Cup fourth-round victory over Aston Villa on Sunday as clear evidence that Wenger's side cannot be underestimated.
"I think we all recognise it, because we are in the best league in the world, within that comes global scrutiny and decisions get questioned," Coyle said. "The bottom line is that Arsenal are very fortunate to have one of the best managers in world football.
"Expectations are raised because they have won honours and haven't been in amongst them again, but for me it is an outstanding club with a fantastic manager and some truly world-class players.
"We are going to have to be at our very best, that is for sure, but if we are, we know that we can win the game. We won the same fixture last year and we have to get to that level again. You only have to look at Sunday. Arsenal found themselves 2-0 down, but then their second-half performance with their quality, speed of passing, pace, movement, counter-attacking... this is an elite club with aspirations of winning the Champions League, of making sure they qualify for it again via the Premier League, of winning the FA Cup.
"They also have been decimated by injuries to key players. When you are missing the calibre of player of Jack Wilshere, who is not only an integral part of the Arsenal squad but also the England squad now, it is going to take its toll from time to time. But they keep on staying in the mix and that is all credit to Arsene and the players he has at his disposal."
Wenger hopes the Gunners' defensive injury crisis may be easing after full-back Kieran Gibbs returned to full training, although not in time for the trip to Bolton.
Wenger reported no fresh fitness worries following Sunday's win over Villa. Right-back Bacary Sagna came on for the closing stages for a first appearance since breaking his ankle against Tottenham in October, and the imminent return of England international left-back Gibbs after three months out following groin surgery will be another timely boost, with Carl Jenkinson and Andre Santos both still on the recovery trail.
Switzerland international Johan Djourou has also shrugged off a calf problem picked up in the defeat against Manchester United, so will bolster a defence which is slowly starting to have balance again following a period where four centre-halves were deployed across the backline.
"He had a normal training session yesterday," Wenger said. "Kieran is still short to play now, but it is good news to have him back. "I think one or two more weeks practice will get him back to being available again, that is very positive."
Wenger, however, urged caution with expecting too much too soon from France international Sagna.
He said: "Sagna is a bit early still [for tonight], but you never know. I might consider it because I have to check all the recoveries of the players who played on Sunday."
Wenger admits his players will have to dig deep to find the energy to go again at Bolton having producing a rousing second-half performance against Villa.
"It was a very demanding game physically," he said. "Now it is important that we recover and prepare well for tomorrow night."