• Leicester City v Arsenal, Saturday, 8.30pm
The first game of a new season is usually a time for excitement and optimism, but those commodities have been in short supply at the Emirates Stadium of late. Arsenal’s 4-3 defeat by Liverpool on the opening weekend only made matters worse, and the mood could become even more toxic if Arsene Wenger’s side are beaten by Leicester City on Saturday.
It was not supposed to turn out like this. Wenger’s early success in north London – and, more significantly, the manner in which it was attained – earned him the respect and admiration of neutral supporters throughout England and beyond. The silverware may have dried up in the last 12 years but many have long since hoped that the Frenchman’s distinguished Arsenal career would one day end with a crowning moment of glory, one final major trophy for a man who has contributed so much to the Premier League over the past two decades.
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Perhaps it still will. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea might take a year to adapt to new management, and a settled Arsenal outfit could sneak in and go one better than 2015/16’s runners-up spot. Wenger may even sign a new contract to remain at the club beyond this season, giving himself another opportunity to go out on a high by winning a fourth Premier League title next term.
At the moment, though, that prospect does not seem at all probable. If Arsenal were unable to finish on top of the pile even when most of the division’s big guns collapsed or underachieved last time out, beating revitalised City, United, Chelsea and Liverpool sides – as well as an improving Tottenham Hotspur – to the championship crown this year appears unlikely.
The atmosphere at the Emirates last Sunday threatened to descend into something rather nasty when Liverpool stormed into a 4-1 lead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s immediate reply to the fourth goal helped, but the full-time whistle was still met by a chorus of boos.
The fan base is fiercely divided along pro- and anti-Wenger lines, but even members of the camp who still support the Frenchman will acknowledge the frustration of those who have called for change – if not necessarily in terms of personnel, then at least with regards to approach.
The supporters’ primary grievance is that Arsenal do not seem to have given themselves the best possible chance of a positive start to the season. Bacary Sagna, Anthony Martial, N’Golo Kante, Dimitri Payet, James Collins, Cedric Soares, Emre Can, Anthony Martial, Hugo Lloris, Sam Vokes, Andy King and Wayne Hennessey all played in the semi-finals and/or final of Euro 2016, and all represented their respective Premier League clubs last weekend. Yet Wenger ruled that Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny could not take part against Liverpool, a decision that forced the hosts to field a centre-back partnership of 21-year-old Calum Chambers and 20-year-old Rob Holding, the former Bolton Wanderers defender who before Sunday had just 30 professional starts for a Championship team to his name.
Granit Xhaka is Arsenal’s only major summer signing to date, despite the obvious need for further additions at centrehalf and up front. More new faces may arrive before the transfer window closes, but there is understandable irritation that the club failed to get its business done before the campaign’s kick-off.
Even more puzzling was Wenger’s defence after the Liverpool loss that “physically we are not ready”. Quite aside from the fact that the manager is the person responsible for ensuring that is not the case, the statement completely contradicted his assertion seven days earlier that Arsenal were in fact prepared for the start of the season.
One match is nowhere near a large enough sample size to make definitive judgements about any team’s chances over a 38-game period, but the early signs at the Emirates are not particularly encouraging. In what looks increasingly likely to be his final year at the club, Wenger’s happy ending seems further away than ever.
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On the other side of the pitch, the loss of N’Golo Kante and the summer strengthening of the traditional big boys are two of the main reasons why a second successive Premier League title will surely be beyond Leicester this term.
Another factor, though, is the sheer improbability of many of Claudio Ranieri’s charges playing above their natural level for another full campaign. Almost every player in the champions’ squad had the best seasons of their careers in 2015/16 – on an individual as well as collective basis – and the likes of Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater, Danny Simpson, Robert Huth, Kasper Schmeichel, Marc Albrighton, Christian Fuchs and even Jamie Vardy may struggle to reach a similar level this time around.
As well as Kante, one player who looked like he did have a long-term future competing for major trophies on an annual basis was Riyad Mahrez, who has duly been linked with a move to Saturday’s opponents Arsenal throughout the summer. Ranieri repeatedly insisted the Algeria international was going nowhere, however, and with Leicester having no financial need to sell their prized asset Mahrez signed a new deal this week.
With a move away from the King Power therefore off the agenda until mid-2017 at the earliest, the 25-year-old must knuckle down and focus on the task in hand over the coming nine months.
As superb as he was for most of last season, the reigning PFA Player of the Year will need to impress again if he wants to remain on the shopping lists of Europe’s elite outfits. Mahrez was far from his best in Leicester’s Community Shield loss to Manchester United and last weekend’s shock defeat to Hull City, but a strong display against his reported suitors on Saturday would more than make up for that.
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