LONDON // Arsene Wenger believes Arsenal can bounce back from their defeat at Chelsea a fortnight ago and can reassert their title credentials now that a string of injured players are back in contention.
Theo Walcott, and Cesc Fabregas are both in contention to return to the side today, but the Arsenal manager is particularly excited about the prospect of being able to call upon the services of Nicklas Bendtner, the young Denmark striker.
"Since last November, Nicklas has produced here and there but has never had a consistent presence because of his injuries," said Wenger. "Apart from the fact he went to the World Cup, I believe we have not seen the real Nicklas Bendtner for a long time. Now he is the closest I have seen him to being his best. For a while, he was really handicapped by groin problems but they look to have gone now."
Bendtner is unlikely to start against Birmingham City, a club who he spent a season on loan at in 2006/07, but, intriguingly, it is a player who has ended up at Birmingham, via Barcelona and Stuttgart, from Arsenal who could come back to haunt Wenger today at Emirates Stadium today.
Aleksandr Hleb, who is on loan at Birmingham from Barcelona, should make his third successive start for City this afternoon and Wenger has no regrets about the decision to sell Helb for nearly £12 million (Dh70,65m) in 2008. "There is no regret over Hleb because he wanted to go," Wenger said.
Another fascinating subplot to today's game is the touchline duel between Wenger and Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager. The Arsenal manager believes Birmingham have used "strong arm" tactics in recent encounters and the tackle that broke Eduardo's leg three seasons ago still rankles with Wenger.
But McLeish is confident the choice of Martin Atkinson as referee means that Wenger will not be able to influence the official to side with the Gunners when it comes to borderline decisions.
"I would hate to think that Arsene's comments would influence a referee in the English game," McLeish said. "We have Martin Atkinson this weekend who was on duty as part of the official's team at the World Cup final and he's a top referee. I am sure he will give a strong performance and you have to be strong at somewhere like the Emirates.
"We are the small team going to play the mighty Arsenal and you hope that the referee's fair. Martin Atkinson comes into that category."
Birmingham effectively ended Arsenal's title bid last season by rescuing a late draw with an injury-time goal from Kevin Phillips. Wenger is expecting another difficult match this afternoon and knows his side can ill-afford a repeat of the laboured display that saw them beaten, 3-2, by West Bromwich Albion in their last home game.
"We had an interruption for the internationals after the Chelsea game, in which there were a lot of positives," Wenger said. "The good side of the defeat at Chelsea is the belief that we can have an important part to play in this league and let's transfer that belief into the Birmingham game.
"Birmingham are a good, organised side who make life difficult for you. They added quality to their squad after a good season last year. They added Alex Hleb, who we know well so they have even more offensive potential."
6pm Abu Dhabi Sport 3