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PARIS – In rescuing Francis Coquelin from the twilight zone of a football career that seemed fast-tracked to nowhere, Arsene Wenger also helped to save himself.
Angry fans booing and insulting the Arsenal manager as he boarded a train after a 3-2 defeat at Stoke on Dec. 6 marked the ugly low point of this Premier League campaign. No amount of frustration can ever excuse the vile and boorish behavior toward such a tireless servant of the game.
Yet that next week, Wenger took one of the key decisions which have helped turn Arsenal's season around. It was Thursday night. Coquelin was at home watching television when his phone rang. Arsenal, which previously had scant use for the defensive midfielder, sending the Frenchman out on loan to Freiburg in Germany and then to Charlton in the second-tier English league, had players injured and needed him back. Immediately.
Two days later, having prepared with Charlton for a weekend game against Blackpool, Coquelin instead found himself taking the field for Arsenal in a 4-1 victory over Newcastle, coming on as a late substitute for Alexis Sanchez.
The rest, as they say, is history. Arsenal is since unbeaten in the league at its Emirates Stadium and has lost just twice away. From wallowing outside the Champions League qualification places, Arsenal travels to Burnley this Saturday looking to consolidate its climb to second behind champion-in-waiting Chelsea.
Jose Mourinho's men would have to fritter away their seven-point lead and Arsenal win its seven remaining games for Wenger to clasp hands on the trophy for the first time since 2004. That isn't going to happen. But a strong finish from Arsenal would keep Chelsea honest and arrest the Gunners' trend of meek endings in four of the last five seasons. If Arsenal also retains the FA Cup — it plays Reading on April 18 for a place in the final — Wenger could embark next season on his 20th campaign in London with realistic hopes of winning a fourth Premier League title with the club.
The Hollywood-esque renaissance of Coquelin — previously under-appreciated, the 23-year-old has become a regular starter since a 2-1 victory at West Ham on Dec. 28 — isn't the only reason for Arsenal's recovery from a ho-hum opening third of the season, with only four wins in its first 12 games. Olivier Giroud's 12 league goals since mid-December and his neat flicks and passes to teammates have been vital, too. Wenger's most costly recruit, Mesut Ozil, is also looking far more committed to the Arsenal cause now.
It was expediency, with injuries to his midfield first choices of Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, that forced Wenger to recall Coquelin in December and not because of some managerial brainwave. Wenger later acknowledged that he had even been thinking of letting Coquelin, who had just months left on his Arsenal contract, move to another club. However, necessity proved the mother of invention.
The way Wenger has deployed Coquelin as a breakwater of extra protection in front of his defense has been smart and shows that, after more than 1,000 games in charge at Arsenal, the 65-year-old is still capable of new tricks. That was particularly true in a 2-0 victory at Manchester City, the outgoing league champion, on Jan. 18. There, the penny seemingly dropped with Wenger that Arsenal needed to temper its gung-ho attacking style that can leave it vulnerable at the back, especially against the quickest and most dangerous teams.
Positioned between Arsenal's midfield and its disciplined back four, Coquelin impressed with clearances, interceptions and energy that robbed City of space and time to create chances. He showed leadership, too, bawling at teammates to calm down and do better. He did not look like a player for whom time had been running out at Arsenal. He did look like a player absolutely determined to no longer be an afterthought at the club that gave him his debut as a teenager in 2008 but since not found much use for him.
"When you wait for such a long time to get your chance and you get it . the human being is a strange animal: the more you have suffered before, the more you enjoy it," Wenger mused last month about Coquelin. "He has gone through a lot of doubt, questioning himself, certainly at many times being discouraged that he didn't get a chance. Now that he has a chance he doesn't want to let it slip away."
The reward: a new long-term contract that Coquelin signed with Arsenal in February. Good things, it seems, really can come to those who wait.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester