By Richard Clarke
With the Champions League out of the way until February and the FA Cup yet to start, Arsène Wenger believes now is the time for Arsenal to play catch-up in the title race.
Liverpool lead the Premier League with 37 points, Chelsea have 36 and Manchester United 31. Then come Arsenal with 29.
It is a sizeable gap and one that has allowed doubts to develop about Wenger’s young side. However the manager retains a steely belief in his team and, he argues, the festive period remains fundamental to their revival.
“There are two things that are special now,” said the manager. “You have a period where you can completely focus on the Premier League plus you can set yourself a target over Christmas.
“This is the first time in England that we have only played 19 games at Christmas. We're only half-way. That is why if we can get to a reasonable [points] difference before then, we have half of the season afterwards to make a real race. But we want to come back into it first.”
And a win at Middlesbrough on Saturday would be a start.
Arsenal have struggled at The Riverside in recent years. They have picked up only one point out of their last nine in this fixture and, last season, the fatigue of numerous long trips saw them go down in tame fashion.
That is significant because Wenger’s men were well beaten at Porto on Wednesday night in the final game of Champions League Group G. They high-tailed it out of Portugal as quickly as possible to prepare for a 12.45pm kick-off on Teesside. It will be one of the quickest turnarounds of their season.
Fortunately five of the nine players who missed the midweek reverse should be back for Saturday - Gael Clichy (hamstring), Cesc Fabregas (knee), Robin van Persie (thigh), Emmanuel Adebayor (rested) and Bacary Sagna (flu). However Kolo Toure (calf) and Samir Nasri (ankle) are still sidelined, along with long-term absentees Eduardo (leg) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring).
Middlesbrough are the epitome of a mid-table team right now. They are four points from the relegation places and the same distance from seventh. It shows that the division is super-tight and, as a result, you could make a plausible argument that Gareth Southgate’s side will either push for Europe or struggle to stay up.
“They have had some fantastic games but have been unlucky,” said Wenger. “For example, at Liverpool they were 1-0 up with a few minutes to go.
“I feel they can give a hard time to anybody because they have strong players with good technique. You know that Middlesbrough are an opponent with quality.”
Wenger also argues that Middlesbrough’s teetering position in the table is down to rising standards in the Premier League. This, he believes, has affected everybody – including the so-called ‘Big Four’.
While Arsenal may lie at the bottom of that mini-League, they have won their two games against fellow members. In addition, the performances of Chelsea and Liverpool have drawn criticism from their fans in recent weeks while only a last-gasp goal saw Manchester United squeeze past Sunderland on Saturday.
The point is that Arsenal, while not at their best, remain entirely in touch with the top of the table. Everybody has problems right now.
“The level of demand is higher from everywhere this season,” said Wenger.
“People always want top, top quality with top results. On the other hand you have better teams than ever in the Premier League and that is why it is difficult for everybody.
“You cannot have, on one side, the best Premier League in the world and, on the other side, just turn up and win every game. You will have surprises.
“I believe that the beauty of the game is that it can change quickly. Success is nobody's divine right. Overall I am convinced that we will come back.
“People can say what they want,” he concluded. “But I believe in our team, I believe in our quality and I am convinced that I am right.”Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source