After some uncertainties at the beginning of the season Arsenal fans are becoming optimistic that the Premier League title is still achievable after enjoying run of victories in recent weeks. Today’s encounter against Manchester United is expected to be a cracker and also an attempt to catch up with Leaders, Manchester City
Two of the Premier League’s top four face off at the Emirates Stadium this evening, as Arsenal play host to rivals Manchester United. The Red Devils sit four points better off than their opponents after 14 matches, but both sides are essentially playing catch up on leaders Manchester City, who are well clear of the chasing pack.
Heading into the final international break of the year on the back of a 3-1 loss to Man City, even the most ardent of Arsenal supporters conceded that their side’s title hopes were effectively over before a third of the season had been played.
In typical Gunners fashion, though, they have put together a run of victories when it mattered most to usurp North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur into fourth place, while just about retaining some outside hope of ending their top-flight trophy drought.
For that to happen they require the Citizens to hit a serious slump in form, with the pacesetters on course to set a new Premier League record for points won and goals scored at their current rate, though Arsene Wenger will simply be focused on the task at hand.
Three points against one of the two sides between themselves and City – champions Chelsea being the other – is the next target, using their impressive form at the Emirates Stadium to their advantage as they seek a rare win over a fellow top-six club.
The midweek thrashing of Huddersfield Town, when scoring three goals in four second-half minutes to come out on top 5-0, was Arsenal’s 12th-successive victory on home soil, meaning that one more will equal their club record set at Highbury 12 years ago.
Two or more goals have been scored in their last 10 matches at the Emirates, and they have also kept an equally impressive five clean sheets in the last six – Swansea City midfielder Sam Clucas the only player to find a way through since Leicester City on the opening day.
Arsenal are adapting well to life in the Europa League, with their second-string side progressing through to the last 32 of the competition as group winners, despite losing 1-0 to Bundesliga basement boys FC Koln last week.
That was one of just three defeats in their last 18 games, though it is the other two defeats in that run – away to Watford and Man City that has already left them potentially battling it out for second. For top spot to remain a realistic ambition, three points are surely a must this weekend.
Speaking in the build-up today’s showdown, Wenger claimed that he does not expect opposite number Jose Mourinho to adopt an overly-defensive approach at the Emirates Stadium or ‘park the bus’, to use a well-trodden phrase.
Mourinho has seen his tactics called into question away to top-six clubs since arriving at United last year, having failed to win any of their six matches in that mini-league against sides directly around them.
Furthermore, the Red Devils have netted just once against the elite sides on their travels – a Wayne Rooney consolation at White Hart Lane six months ago and were heavily criticised when coming away from Liverpool with a point last month.
Whether or not the abuse was warranted is up for debate, but there is no denying that United must start taking the initiative in these big fixtures if they are to have any hope of catching City – their next opponents, ironically – at the top of the division.
The good news for Mourinho’s men is that they face the only top-six member club with a worse record than them, as Arsenal have collected 13 points from 14 games in these fixtures since the start of last season; United 14 from one game less.
In most other campaigns the Red Devils’ tally of 32 points at this stage would also be considered impressive enough, but the form of City has changed all that and they cannot afford to drop further points heading into next weekend’s meeting with their noisy neighbours.
United also boast their best goal difference after 14 games since 2000-01, scoring 32 and conceding just eight to give them the best defensive record in the top flight and second best attack stats after, you’ve guessed it, Man City.
Mourinho admitted in midweek that he was not happy with the complacency shown by his players when sitting comfortably against Watford, only to temporarily give their opponents a route back into the game, while the 1-0 loss in Basel last week also skewed the form guide somewhat.
Twelve games without defeat in all competitions is now three defeats in nine, but the visitors do still remain in a healthy position at home and in Europe heading into this defining period of the campaign.
Club-record signing Alexandre Lacazette has slowly been finding his feet in North London, netting his fifth goal on home soil against Huddersfield last time out, but a groin injury will see him spend some time on the sidelines.
That has opened up a spot for Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck through the middle, while Alexis Sanchez is another option should Wenger opt to go down the same route adopted for large parts of last season.
Alex Iwobi is another fitness doubt after missing the win over the Terriers with a dead leg, and at the back Laurent Koscielny is touch-and-go as he does not tend to play three matches in the space of a week.
In terms of the visitors, the big question concerns key midfielder Nemanja Matic, who limped off early in the second half against Watford and is unlikely to play any part in this one.
Ander Herrera, on the bench for the Red Devils’ last three games, could therefore come back into the fold if Marouane Fellaini is also absent.
Elsewhere, Phil Jones and Eric Bailly could yet hand Mourinho a boost by returning to full health ahead of schedule, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku may be used in tandem from the off.
Meanwhile, Manchester City, on a club record 12-match winning run in the league, have far fewer worries as they prepare for what looks like an easy home game against a struggling West Ham United on Sunday.
The Hammers were thrashed 4-0 by Everton on Wednesday.
Everton, now up to 13th, will be under new management for their home game against Huddersfield with former England boss Sam Allardyce moving in just as Wayne Rooney rediscovers his goalscoring form.
West Bromwich Albion will also have a new face calling the shots against visitors Crystal Palace on Saturday, with Alan Pardew facing the south London club who sacked him last December.
“Confidence is obviously a little bit low at the moment. We need a win and hopefully we will get that as quick as we can,” he said when appointed on Wednesday.
Fifth placed Liverpool, rampant against Stoke City with a 3-0 win on Wednesday, are at Brighton and Hove Albion while champions Chelsea, in third, host Newcastle United in today’s early match.
Tottenham Hotspur are at Watford and Burnley, up to the giddy heights of sixth, are at Leicester City.