Arsène Wenger can at last experience a sense of liberation. The Arsenal manager is not at the "I told you so" stage but his team's thrilling 5-3 Premier League victory at Chelsea on Saturday has brought him a degree of vindication and, more intoxicatingly, hope.
The trials of the early season felt some way away as he considered the Champions League visit of Marseille to the Emirates Stadium, a match which could smooth the Gunners' passage into the knockout phase of the tournament. Wenger's reconstructed team have enjoyed their defining moment. The challenge now is to capitalise.
"In the team's heads, there was certainly uncertainty about whether they could win a big game," Wenger said. "I knew we had the potential to do it but I am not the only one who has an influence on the team. There is the environment as well. If you read every day you are bad, at the end of the week you will start to believe it.
"For us, it was a massive test; firstly quality-wise and second, to see if we could compete in terms of quality with top teams. Nobody knew before the game. It was also important to see if we were capable of winning when we played well, and we did."
Wenger always says that the past is of little interest to him but it was difficult to look forward to Marseille and beyond without looking back at Arsenal's emotional triumph on Saturday, when the full‑time celebrations spoke volumes for the team's solidarity. The strength was illustrated most literally by the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and the forward Theo Walcott, who dropped down to do celebratory press-ups in front of the travelling fans. It was quite a game for Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder, to have caught on his visit to London.
"You want the players to be happy and there is a need for us to communicate with our fans again and that was a good chance [at full-time], we wanted that," Wenger said. "After that, though, we have won nothing. We must just use it as a springboard to go further towards our targets. The players know that. But we have more experience than we have had in the last five or six years.
"The players are happy to see that he [Kroenke] is interested in the club and their future but I believe that what is at stake for us now is how big our ambitions can be. We are a new team but the game on Saturday will have played a positive part. The celebrations showed two things – how much the players want to win and how big the test was for us. We have a bigger test now against Marseille."
The Ligue 1 club have stabilised their form since Arsenal beat them 1-0 at the Stade Vélodrome two weeks ago, thanks to Aaron Ramsey's injury-time goal. Wenger suggested that the French club could be more dangerous opponents away from home. Marseille's defensive strength, physicality and speed on the counterattack are certainly the hallmarks of a side who can punch their weight off the back foot.
However, if Arsenal's win in the south of France put them ahead of schedule in their two matches against Didier Deschamps's team, they are eager to press their superiority. Wenger wants to advance as group winners, although he did note that Barcelona could yet go through as runners-up, which could make for an unfortunate last‑16 draw.
"Ten points would guarantee our qualification but it would not guarantee first place [in the group]," Wenger said. "You want to finish as high as possible but the first step is to qualify. It will be a difficult game against Marseille so let's be cautious, prepare well and be completely focused."
Wenger still wants improvements from his defence – its shortcomings were papered over at Chelsea by the exuberance of Robin van Persie and co at the other end – and the manager must decide how to accommodate the centre-half Thomas Vermaelen, who is fit after a foot injury. Wenger faces his usual selection dilemmas, with a desire for continuity set against the need for him to rest his overworked players.
"I am tempted [to remain with the team from Chelsea]," the Arsenal manager said. "Sometimes, if you take a team on a roll, there is no need to change it, although you can defend any policy. When a team is on a positive experience, why not? That is what I have to decide."
One player who will not be seen for at least another three weeks is Abou Diaby; the midfielder has suffered a hamstring problem as he fights to come back from ankle surgery. The striker Marouane Chamakh is out with knee trouble.
"I am worried about Diaby but I was more worried three months ago," Wenger said. "His ankle was not good. The surgery went very well but now his balance has changed and so he has to adjust his muscular strength. He has had two setbacks with the hamstring."
The Frenchman added: "If he can get rid of his muscular problem in the next two to three weeks, he will be ready."