Arsene Wenger recognises the football romantics are rooting for Leicester City, but he wants his Arsenal side to be heartless on Valentine’s Day in a crucial encounter in the race for the Premier League title.
Leaders Leicester have confounded the critics all season and hold a five-point lead over Tottenham and third-placed Arsenal with 13 matches remaining.
Claudio Ranieri’s men gave the clearest indication yet that they can last the course by dismantling Manchester City 3-1 in a top-of-the-table clash at the Etihad Stadium last weekend.
In the aftermath of that game, Leicester drew plaudits for their defensive resiliency and lightning quick counter-attacks, with Riyad Mahrez – who Wenger said is “dominating the Premier League” at his pre-match news conference – scoring the pick of the goals.
Wenger knows Arsenal must deal with those threats as well as the knowledge that the majority of the country are backing Leicester.
“You don’t have to be some super mathematician to see it is a very important game. It is maybe not yet decisive, but it is really important,” he said ahead of Sunday’s contest at Emirates Stadium.
“Leicester have the advantage. Their story is obviously very romantic and I understand the whole country being behind them. That is human.
“We have to nullify their pace and attacking potential – we want to dominate the game, have the ball and be dangerous.”
Leicester’s victories over the Premier League’s powerhouses are proving no fluke, with Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea among the teams beaten by Ranieri’s side in the past 10 weeks.
Indeed, some bookmakers installed Leicester as favourites for the title after the City result and a win on Sunday would open an eight-point gap to Arsenal.
Leicester have failed to win the past 18 league meetings between the sides, though, and will need no reminding of Arsenal’s talent having been beaten 5-2 in September’s reverse fixture – Alexis Sanchez ending the match with a hat-trick.
And Ranieri is all too aware of the plethora of talent at Wenger’s disposal.
“In the last match they scored five, we scored two and hit the post twice. It was an exciting match,” he said.
“It will be open on Sunday. Arsenal have so many fantastic players. They have magicians that can score suddenly.”
The match is likely to come too soon for Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck, who has been absent since April with a knee injury, despite him now being in full training, while Wenger says Jack Wilshere (ankle) and Santi Cazorla (knee) are now weeks rather than months from returning.
Jeffrey Schlupp (hamstring) has returned to training for Leicester, but is not yet available for selection.
Key Opta stats:
– Alexis Sanchez has scored four goals in his three Premier League games against Leicester City.
– The Gunners have won 12 and lost none of the last 18 Premier League matches against the Foxes.
– Arsenal have won their last eight home Premier League meetings with Leicester City.
– Three of the four players to have had a hand in 20+ goals in the Premier League this season will play in this match – Riyad Mahrez (24), Jamie Vardy (21) and Mesut Ozil (20).
– Leicester City have named an unchanged starting XI in their last five Premier League games – the last team to name the same starting XI in six successive PL matches was Arsenal in May 2015.
– On the last 11 occasions that Arsenal have faced a team that was top of the Premier League, they have won just once (D4 L6) and scored only four goals (conceding 18).