Next four games will make or break Arsenal
Villa, United, Chelsea and Liverpool – it's the toughest of runs for any title contenders
Next month will be two years since Arsenal went five points clear at the top of the Premier League and Arsène Wenger confidently predicted, with just 12 games left in the season, "We believe we can do it."
In the space of 41 days his young team drew four in a row, lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and found themselves in third place having tossed away 11 points net to Manchester United. Along the way they also chucked in the FA Cup at Old Trafford in a 4-0 defeat that seemed to tip them over the brink. William Gallas lost the plot at Birmingham City in the way only he can.
The 2007-2008 season was the year that Wenger's team proved nothing more than that they lacked the maturity and the strong characters in the team to drag themselves over the finishing line. The English season ended in epic fashion, both in the league and in the Champions League final in Moscow, but that was all about United and Chelsea. Arsenal were a footnote.
Now, two years on, Arsenal are back on top of the Premier League and once more in the midst of a title run-in. It is not good enough to say that these young players have not been here before because many of them were in that 2008 team that blew it. The question now is whether they have learnt their lesson or whether 20 January, 2010, will prove to be the high point of their league season rather than the launching pad.
In 2008 the damage was done by Birmingham, Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough – who all claimed a point from Arsenal. Now the upcoming run of games is Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, which will give Wenger a very simple answer as to the readiness of his players to take on the challenge.
The truth is that Wenger is probably not certain himself whether his team can finish the job until they have proved it themselves. In 2008 he was also labouring under injury and availability problems and Robin van Persie only played one game in the first two months of the year.
Van Persie is out this season, too, and the scale of the injuries this time can be judged by the anticipation around Nicklas Bendtner's imminent comeback. Since 2008 they have lost Emmanuel Adebayor, Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb and Gilberto Silva but the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Eduardo da Silva, Denilson and Abou Diaby are more experienced.
Given that his team are only leading Chelsea on goals scored, and have played one game more, Wenger is wisely resisting the temptation to promise great things come May. "It shows that things can change quickly," he said. "When you keep belief, no matter what people say, it can strengthen the belief in the heads of my players and make them stronger.
"I'm very proud of what the players have achieved. [After the defeat to Chelsea on 29 November] it looked a bit ludicrous to say we'd come back. But the players played with that belief. We believe we have a real chance. I'm convinced this team will have a real go. It's very important we keep a mixture of humility – feet on the ground – and desire to win it."
The landscape looks very different from 2008 when United were far more dominant and Liverpool were strong enough to eliminate Arsenal from the Champions League. There is no doubt that the key factor in Arsenal's resurgence has not been what they have done themselves but the extraordinary slippage of those above them.
Goals have come from all over this Arsenal team, as typified by the victory over Bolton. Bendtner is back in training next week and on Wednesday Theo Walcott had his first run-out since 27 December. For all the injuries elsewhere, Arsenal have benefited from the durability of Gallas and Thomas Vermaelen, who have been ever-present in the league.
Which is why it might prove difficult for Arsenal's latest signing, who watched Wednesday's game from the Emirates tunnel area, to get a game. Sol Campbell will struggle to play in the 10 games required for a winners' medal if Arsenal hang on to first place. Campbell is a reminder of the days when Arsenal knew how to handle the run-in. These days not even Wenger seems to know how they will react.
Top Guns: Arsenal's run
Arsenal have dropped just four points in nine games since losing 3-0 at home to Chelsea in November.
5 Dec Stoke (h) Won 2-0
13 Dec Liverpool (a) Won 2-1
16 Dec Burnley (a) Drew 1-1
19 Dec Hull (h) Won 3-0
27 Dec Aston Villa (h) Won 3-0
30 Dec Portsmouth (a) Won 4-1
9 Jan Everton (h) Drew 2-2
17 Jan Bolton (a) Won 2-0
20 Jan Bolton (h) Won 4-2
Played 9; Won 7; Drew 2; Lost 0; F23; A7
Top three's next five fixtures
Wed Aston Villa (a), 31 Jan Man United (h), 7 Feb Chelsea (a), 10 Feb Liverpool (h), 20 Feb Sunderland (h)
Wed Birmingham (h), 30 Jan Burnley (a), 2 Feb Hull (a), 7 Feb Arsenal (h), 10 Feb Everton (a)
Sat Hull (h), 31 Jan Arsenal (a), 6 Feb Portsmouth (h), 10 Feb Aston Villa (a), 20 Feb Everton (a)
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