Gunners rue Vermaelen absence
But he maintains the back four should not shoulder all the blame for the goals which have flowed past the Gunners to end trophy challenges on all fronts. The Belgian centre-half, 25, is in line for a first-team return against Aston Villa after eight months out with a niggling Achilles problem sustained on international duty, which eventually required surgery. Vermaelen impressed in his debut Premier League campaign after a £10million move from Ajax during June 2009 and, in his absence, Arsenal's defence rarely looked as stable. Manager Arsene Wenger feels if Vermaelen, an unused substitute in last weekend's defeat at Stoke, had been fit all season, some of the soft goals they conceded would not have transpired. The Belgian, though, firmly believes keeping a clean sheet must always be collective responsibility. "It has been a long period, which has been a horrible time, but it is finished now and I am happy to get back on the pitch," Vermaelen told Arsenal TV Online. "I always thought I would be fit in a few weeks, and then had setbacks. "However, I am cured now and it is absolutely fine." Vermaelen said: "The other guys have done quite well, but there is always talk about the back four of Arsenal. "Of course you have to defend well and have your individual qualities, but defending is always teamwork as well. "You have to look at every goal we concede and say, 'How did it come?'. It is not always a mistake just of the defenders, more or less it is from a few players. "There have been too many games where we were not good enough." Wenger recognised that Vermaelen's absence meant summer arrival Laurent Koscielny, sidelined on Sunday with a thigh problem, had to adapt to the hustle and bustle of the English game sooner than expected. "Vermaelen has played just three games in the whole season, and that was not envisaged at all, because he is a solid player," said the Arsenal manager. "To lose him for such a long time in the season was not ideal, however that matured Koscielny, who was planned to maybe get 20 games this season, and also Johan Djourou, who had a good season as well. "However, we did not count at the start to have Vermaelen out for such a long time." Arsenal can take a significant step towards securing third place ahead of FA Cup finalists Manchester City by signing off their home campaign with a victory over out-of-form Villa. For Wenger, though, not to be still fighting for the championship remains a difficult pill to swallow. "When you know you have no chance, you accept it, but this season I felt the attitude of the team was right, the potential was there and we were very close in every competition," said the Arsenal boss, facing a sixth consecutive season without a trophy. "You cannot say we failed quality-wise because we have produced some fantastic football games and overall the contribution, the energy this team has given, is absolutely amazing and I wanted them so much to be rewarded that I got more and more frustrated during the season." Wenger is not enamoured by the prospect of seeing all that hard work fade away should his team now slip down to fourth. "It would create an uncertainty because fourth place is not in the Champions League, it is to qualify for the Champions League, there is a massive difference," said the Arsenal manager. "With having many players away on international duty at the start of the season, it would be difficult for us, so it is very important we finish in the top three."