"It's time for Arsenal to roll their sleeves up"
After an eventful and not particularly edifying or gratifying 10 days for Arsenal the last team Arsene Wenger would have hoped to be playing this weekend would be Manchester United, but that is exactly the challenge that faces his crestfallen side.
It has been a period in which points have been dropped, games lost, chances missed, players injured, credentials doubted and character called into question. The gut-wrenching 4-4 draw against Tottenham Hotspur, the 2-1 defeat to Stoke City and the 0-0 draw to Fenerbahce all revealed weaknesses in an Arsenal side which is short on leaders, confidence and fighting spirit.
It is hardly the best preparation for one of the most important games in the club's season. But former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour, speaking to ESPNsoccernet ahead of the game, believes that despite the side's recent poor run, they should have no problem getting themselves mentally prepared for the game.
''You're playing Manchester United. What preparation do you need? You play them twice a year in the league. You have to roll your sleeves up. This is an extra big game, it always has been. The players will be disappointed how its gone in the last three games, but what a great chance to say: 'If we beat Manchester United we're back in [the title race]'.
''When it's Arsenal v Manchester United, you find a little bit extra. It is the biggest game of the season. When I was playing we had to beat them if we were going to win the league. That was the game you always looked at when the fixtures came out. Tottenham might be our local rivals but that was the one. It was always a meaty encounter, always a great game with plenty of desire.''
''The Man United game on Saturday is very important, because if [Arsenal] can win there will be masses of confidence going through the dressing room. But it's up to the players to raise their game.''
But while the Arsenal squad of Ray Parlour's playing days could look to the leadership of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira to spur the team when confidence was low, the current Gunners squad is notably short on such characters.
''Wenger was looking for a leader in midfield,' accepts Parlour. 'But he didn't manage to get one in the transfer window. He was looking at Gareth Barry and Xabi Alonso. You need someone who is commanding and controlling in midfield.''
''For me, Arsenal have really missed Mathieu Flamini this year. He always did a lot of work for Cesc Fabregas, work that allowed him to get forward. Denilson has come in and done OK, but he's not that bulldog player winning the ball back, putting tackles in. And Flamini's work rate was phenomenal, he would run 13-14k in a match.
Diagnosing the problem as he sees it Parlour added: ''[Arsenal] need someone who is going to pick up loose balls and screen the back four and Flamini was fantastic at that. And they lost Gilberto and his experience, even though he might not have played much. The point is that they didn't replace them.
''As a midfield player you've got to think this is my chance to make this position my own, I'm just hoping one of Alex Song or Abou Diaby will take that opportunity. But no-one's done that yet.''
Parlour has sympathy for Stoke City's players following Arsene Wenger's criticism of their tactics in the wake of Arsenal's defeat at the Britannia Stadium last week, arguing that the home side played the game in the only way they could.
''If Stoke City had just let [Arsenal] play, let them pass the ball, they would have lost 3-0. Tony Pulis would have been in that dressing room telling his side 'Upset them, don't let them pass, don't let them get in a rhythm'. The big clubs don't like and that's the only chance [Stoke had] to win. So you can't knock how they approached the game''.
''The thing that concerns me is the teams that they've lost to. Fulham away - that was awful, Hull City at home - never should lose, and Stoke away. Three teams you could have expected to go down. Saturday is a big test for them, but maybe this team is one that players better against the big sides.''
Returning to the game against Manchester United at the Emirates on Saturday Parlour is expecting a close, hard-fought encounter.
''I think it will be a very tough game, if you go with form you go with Manchester United, simple as that. But form goes out of the window in games like this, you've just got to go out there and give it everything. The first goal is so important. I just hope they come out of their blocks and excite the crowd, because the crowd plays such a big part in games like this. You find something extra when you hear them.''
When assessing the main threat posed by the United side Parlour said: ''You look at their team and they've got so many key players: Ronaldo, Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez. Then there's Carrick coming back, who I really like. Nani has been good down the left. Ferdinand is key, Vidic is key. But I think Ronaldo will be the one to watch, he can score out of nothing, and is in a nice bit of form with four goals in two games in the league.''
''For Arsenal, it's Fabregas. He's got to have a good game in midfield. He's got to control it. The back four have got to defend for their lives, because then you've got a chance. If you've got a clean sheet Arsenal can always nick a goal at the other end.''