What a difference a year makes as Arsenal ‘reassure’ Arsene Wenger of title credentials
Whatever happens when Newcastle United visit the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, Arsene Wenger can be satisfied Arsenal have ended 2015 in a much better shape than they started the year.
Twelve months ago, Arsenal slumped to a 2-0 defeat at Southampton that left them in sixth position in the Premier League, 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea — a dismal situation that led to a confrontation between Wenger and an angry supporter during the game.
This time around, Arsenal will start the new year at the top of the league table and bolstered by the growing confidence this could be the year they deliver a first league title since 2004.
Wenger’s side have grown stronger the longer the season has gone on and it would be a major surprise if they failed to record a fifth win in six league games against Steve McClaren’s struggling Newcastle.
The 4-0 defeat at Southampton a week ago demonstrated the north London club still have the capacity to stumble unexpectedly.
But with German midfielder Mesut Ozil in outstanding form and Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey getting better with every game, the impact of a succession of injuries to key players including Alexis Sanchez has not been felt as keenly as they might have been.
The title race, though, remains finely balanced, with only goal difference separating Arsenal from Leicester City, who lie second, with Manchester City a further three points behind.
Wenger said this is the most exciting season at the head of the table for several years and the immediate challenge for his side is to ensure they maintain their slender lead.
And on that count, the Arsenal manager believes performances have offered grounds for optimism at the Emirates.
“Being top on goal difference doesn’t make a big difference, it is just down to how well you play,” Wenger said.
“Your performances dictate all that and you have to be guided by your performances.
“After that it is reassuring to know that if your performances are right you do not need bad results from somebody else.
“That is one less stress. It is a bad thing in our job — we always want to be successful and we wish that the others are not.
“That is not a very good feeling in our position, but once you are first you can just focus on your performance.
“I heard last night the cliché; ‘nobody wants to win this league’. I can say as well that everybody wants to win it.
“And if you were in the game you would think that’s not the case — everybody wants to win it but it’s difficult.”
French midfielder Mathieu Flamini is fit to return but Sanchez faces another week on the sidelines while he recovers from a hamstring problem.
Newcastle are back in the relegation zone after consecutive defeats over the Christmas period.
They have several selection issues ahead of the trip to the Emirates Stadium, with goalkeeper Rob Elliot hopeful of returning after illness in place of Karl Darlow, who struggled on his Premier League debut in the 1-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion.
That loss left the Tyneside club two points adrift of safety going into the New Year.
McClaren still remains confident Newcastle can avoid relegation, as his side look to improve on a record of 13 defeats from their last 15 visits to Arsenal.
“Our form has not been good enough and that’s why we find ourselves in the bottom three,” he said.
“But we feel as if we’re getting there after a tough start. There are 19 games left and we have a lot of hard work to do to get to where we want to be.”
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Published: January 1, 2016 04:00 AM