Arsene Wenger may have lost his voice before Arsenal’s home match with Stoke City on Sunday but the discussion over his future is unlikely to be silenced just yet.
At the end of the season Wenger will be halfway through a two-year contract many Gunners fans felt should never have been handed in the first place to a man who had not won the Premier League since 2004.
The 68-year-old declared during the international break that many of his critics were simply guilty of age discrimination rather than a genuine unhappiness with Arsenal’s current position.
North London giants Arsenal will kick off in sixth position, 13 points adrift of fourth-placed local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, and therefore in danger of missing out on the Champions League for a second successive season.
Yet the Gunners can still pin their hopes on emulating Manchester United and qualifying for Europe’s elite trophy next term by winning the Europa League.
The visit of second-bottom Stoke is the third in a five-game sequence of home fixtures, with the first leg of the Europa League last-16 clash with CSKA Moscow following on Thursday.
Wenger’s throat problems saw assistant manager Steve Bould hastily thrust into media duties, and the former Arsenal defender, who also played for Stoke, his hometown club, was reluctant to take on the Frenchman’s mantle of providing intelligent yet often controversial commentary about all aspects of the game.
The only game Bould wanted to talk about was the Stoke one, but he did offer an insight into how Arsenal fans’ unrest was perceived from the bench.
– ‘Unbelievable stick’ –
“I admire him immensely,” Bould said of Wenger. “He takes unbelievable stick off an awful lot of people and he’s just one of the great managers. It’s a pleasure for me to sit next to him.
“He’s remarkable. Behind closed doors I’ve never known someone who’s as hungry and determined to win football games. It’s as big as I’ve ever seen. He’s doing a great job, as far as I’m concerned and has done a great job for an awfully long time.”
There are many Arsenal fans who feel Wenger, appointed Arsenal manager in September 1996, has overstayed his welcome for an awfully long time, or that the title drought has been both awful and prolonged, but Bould was confident there would be plenty to cheer about before the end of the season.
“The more games we can win now the better the season becomes and what happens in the end is what happens,” he said.
Jack Wilshere has recovered from the knee problem that forced him to miss England’s friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy and striker Alexandre Lacazette is also back in full training following injury. The pair are more likely to be on the bench than start, however.
Meanwhile Stoke manager Paul Lambert believes midfielder Joe Allen is so full of energy he could still star against Arsenal after rushing back from China.
Allen has been hugely influential in midfield since Lambert took over in December and recently featured in Wales’ 6-0 win against the hosts and their 1-0 defeat by Uruguay in a tournament in China.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Joe Allen ran back from China and is still fit as a fiddle. He’s really brilliant — a manager’s dream,” said Lambert.
“I don’t know how he does it. I spoke to him after his long flight and it was a breath of fresh air talking to him — he looked great and he was in a good mood.
Relegation-threatened Stoke are three points shy of safety and go to the Emirates bidding to end a run of nine straight defeats at Arsenal.
At least Lambert knows how to win there, having guided Aston Villa to a 3-1 success in August 2013.
“For me, it’s fresh so I’m not thinking we haven’t won there — I don’t have anything in my head… just try to win,” he said.