Arsenal may be sitting four points clear of their closest opposition, and a comfortable 12 points ahead of the reigning Premier League champions, but they are about to embark on a run of matches that could decide how far they go towards breaking their eight-year trophy drought. In effect, the season starts now for the Gunners.
Having secured a 2-0 win over Hull City midweek, Arsene Wenger’s side maintained their lead over Chelsea, with efforts from the ever-inconsistent Nicklas Bendtner and record signing Mesut Ozil enough to see them run out comfortable victors.
But on Sunday they face an Everton side with their tails up, having broken their 21-year run without a win at Old Trafford thanks to the 1-0 victory that saw Manchester United slip a dozen points off the pace.
Roberto Martinez has quickly assembled a side that is playing confident and successful football, evidenced by their standing just outside the Champions League positions – and level on points with Merseyside rivals and fourth-placed Liverpool.
With Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu, Bryan Oviedo and the likes starting to establish their name in the top flight, the Toffees will certainly pose Arsenal a threat, and the Gunners could be caught napping as they’ll certainly have one eye on Wednesday’s Champions League decider in Naples.
Wenger’s side need to avoid a three-goal defeat to Napoli in order to progress to the last 16, or else they face the prospect of dropping down to the second-tier Europa League for the first time in 14 years. However, Wenger will be determined to secure at least a point, as if Borussia Dortmund record the predicted victory in Marseille on the same night, the Gunners would much prefer to qualify as the Group F winners.
Finishing first will mean they avoid being drawn against teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris St-Germain, not to mention current holders Bayern Munich. This makes the match all the more important, and could force Wenger’s hand in deploying a full-strength starting line-up when he would have hoped to have rested a number of his key players.
Just three days later, the Gunners head up to Manchester in what could be one of the most exhilarating league matches of the season so far. Manchester City have been scoring freely at home this campaign, netting an incredible 29 times in seven matches, and they will be hoping to claw back some of the six-point deficit between the two clubs with a victory at the Etihad.
Arsenal tend to struggle on their travels to Manchester too. They have not won in their past seven matches against both City and United, having scored just four times throughout that run – two of those came in the 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011. Their last success came in the 3-0 victory over City in October 2010, when Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas were still at the centre of every Gunners’ fans heart.
Should they still sit at the top of the table upon leaving Manchester, Wenger will have over a week to prepare his side for the Monday night visit of Chelsea in a highly anticipated London derby between the top two.
The Blues have the bragging rights after knocking Arsenal out of the League Cup in October, and have won three out of the last four meetings between the two sides. Jose Mourinho’s side also appear to be finally hitting a consistent run of form, putting four goals past Sunderland and three past the defensively sound Southampton. Their blips along the way keep occurring though, with the defeats to Basle and Newcastle and the late draw against West Brom a prime example of this.
A Boxing Day trip to West Ham is then followed by a trip to Newcastle, and if they head into these two matches on the back of two defeats, they run the risk of seeing their title challenge collapse before it’s really begun. Alternatively, victories against City and Chelsea could provide a springboard in which they break away from the rest, and maybe just then people will start to take their title credentials seriously.
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