The games of destiny

Four games, two opponents and 13 days which could decide Arsenal's season. There is no doubt what is at stake as Arsene Wenger gathered his players around him at London Colney today for the build-up to one of the most pressurised sequences in any of their distinguished careers.

Two clashes with Chelsea in their Champions League quarter-final will dictate whether Arsenal can progress beyond the last eight for the first time. Sandwiched between those capital encounters come two games with Manchester United - in the Premiership at Highbury and in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park six days later.

If Arsenal survive, the Treble dream lives on. And while Robert Pires reflects the determination among the players to take nothing for granted after the experiences of a year ago when an eight-point lead was squandered, he is certain of one thing: his team-mates can handle the heat.

"We like matches with pressure," said the 30-year-old French midfielder. "It means you are involved in the chase for trophies if you are involved in such matches at this stage of the season. Everybody wants to beat us. So the higher the pressure, the better Arsenal are."

On Wednesday they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of their European quarter-final. On the face of it, statistics suggest Arsenal can already start checking out facilities for the semi-final in either Monaco or Madrid. After all, the teams have met three times this season and the Gunners have won the lot. Three-nil to the Arsenal. Pires, though, shrugs off that record as irrelevant.

Again, the lessons of 12 months ago have clearly been taken on board. "The problem a year ago was we anticipated victories in the league. Everybody else was saying it and we thought the same. It taught us a lot."

"Okay, so we have beaten Chelsea three times this season but that will not mean anything in the Champions League games. We are careful about that record. We don't think about those victories, not at all. Chelsea have big players like Adrian Mutu, Hernan Crespo, Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, Claude Makelele . . . so many of them. They will love the big games. All they need at the moment is time. They have a new president (Roman Abramovich) and new players. They have to find a balance."

"This is the main difference between Arsenal and Chelsea. We have played together, basically the same players, for three or four years. It has created links between the players. That is important for the atmosphere on and off the pitch."

" Chelsea do not have that balance just yet but they will want to win something this season. I believe there is still a possibility that they can win the Premiership but it will be a big achievement for them if they were able to beat Arsenal in the Champions League. They will be very motivated, we know that."

Planning a strategy against Chelsea is difficult because Claudio Ranieri changes his line-up so much. "All I know, is that it will be a formidable team against us," said Pires, who scored another cracker in in Saturday's 2-1 win over Bolton.

And he has equal respect for Manchester United whose decline has been rapid as suspensions and injuries have slashed the options for Sir Alex Ferguson at a critical stage of the season. "They are going through what we went through last season at this time," said Pires. "Look at the game at Blackburn recently. We won 2-0 where last season we lost 2-0 and we had basically the same players. The difference is we are going through a good period and United are not."

"But they will want to protect their Treble. They won three trophies in 1999 and that was a marvellous achievement, a formidable thing. They still have great players - I especially like Paul Scholes, he is tremendous - and they will be like a wounded animal at the moment. And wounded animals are the most dangerous. They will want to beat us to prevent us achieving what they achieved. It will be tough - in the league game and the FA Cup match."

Pires, however, is convinced that Arsenal are equipped for the massive challenges ahead. He epitomises the transformation of a year ago and is now willing to give as good as he gets on the field. Witness the scene when Aston Villa came to Highbury back in August. Villa's Swedish defender Olof Mellberg waved an imaginary card that he felt should have been shown to Pires after what he regarded as an exaggerated response to a challenge.

Rather than forget it, Pires confronted Mellberg and the argument, reinforced by several members of the Villa bench, continued in the players' tunnel at half-time. "There was a lot of shouting," he recalled. "Then it all went quiet. I looked around and Patrick was there." The "Patrick" in question was Vieira, always so fiercely protective of his team-mates.

"He is now the best in the world in that midfield role," said Pires. "He used to be just defensive but now he does everything. Defending and attacking. He is also a natural leader. He organises dinners for the rest of the players and that makes the bond between us strong off the field as well as on it."

And while Pires has changed, so have the team. Arsenal will now settle for the pragmatic when necessary. "It is good for us when we win playing spectacular football," he said. "But we didn't produce that at Blackburn. It was efficient. Sometimes you have to win using your head. It is not very important that we win playing super football. We just need to win."

Source: This is London