By Richard Clarke
Arsène Wenger knows that one of the top five - somehow, sometime - will find a modicum of momentum in the New Year.
And he believes it will be enough to win them the title.
The Premier League has been a mish-mash this season. Leaders Manchester United look the team most likely at the moment - and remain unbeaten – yet their performances have hardly inspired.
But if it is not to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s side then Arsenal and Manchester City are next in the line.
That is why even the normally reserved Wenger could not help but build up the clash between the two sides at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
Arsenal’s Christmas was decent. They won the tougher-looking games – Chelsea (h) and Birmingham (a) – and drew at Wigan with a much-changed side.
A victory over Manchester City would move them both into second place and, surely, the role of chief challengers to the Old Trafford outfit.
“It is a very, very big game because we are very ambitious in this League,” he said at his pre-match press conference.
“We have a good away record and if we beat the big teams at home - and we made a start against Chelsea - we have a chance to win the title. That’s why this game is very big.
“The squad is confident and has great belief. They are very hungry, highly motivated to do well and physically we are in great shape.
“I had a two-point frustration over Christmas but I am very happy with the attitude of the players and the way we improve from game to game.
“You always have a team after the New Year who finds a momentum and this team will win the title.
“That is why it is down to consistency. But this team have a good wave of belief, togetherness and quality. I am confident that we will maintain that and get stronger and stronger.
“There are five teams in the fight. Some teams have a bit more belief than others but that can change very quickly. So overall it promises to be a very interesting sprint.”
Arsenal’s back has jettisoned a few monkeys this season, only for a couple more to clamber on.
Winning at ‘tough’ places has been a perennial problem. This term they have taken three points on the grounds of Birmingham, Blackburn, Wolves, Everton and Aston Villa.
They have also beaten title rivals – Chelsea at home and Manchester City away.
In addition, on Tuesday Wenger acknowledged his injury list was as short as it has ever been at this stage of the season.
But then who could have predicted that they would have lost three times at Emirates Stadium before Christmas.
Arsenal have dropped nine points at home so far. No title-winning team have let slip more than ten since Wenger’s side scooped the trophy in 2001/02. No wonder the manager has said home form will make or break his side’s challenge.
Only Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna and Laurent Koscielny have played throughout Christmas. Having beaten Chelsea so comprehensively on December 27, Wenger swapped the remaining eight two days later and let in a late goal to draw 2-2 at Wigan. He brought the same eight back at Birmingham on New Year’s Day and steamrollered Birmingham 3-0.
With the FA Cup Third Round coming on Saturday, the manager may broadly stick with the same squad this time and change it around when Leeds come to Emirates Stadium at the weekend.
It is a gamble but this is one of the biggest squads Wenger has had.
There were no unfamiliar names on show at Wigan or Birmingham but Alex Song, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were omitted from the squad for the first game and Marouane Chamakh for the second.
The current strength of personnel is based on the gradual maturing of players who were given their debuts as teenagers – often in the Carling Cup.
Manchester City have a different model. They are expected to sign striker Eden Dzeko from Wolfsburg in the next few days for a fee rumoured to be £27 million.
“We know they can decide to do it if they want,” said Wenger. “And they did it because they have the financial power.”
The Bosnian is another massive investment following the likes of David Silva, Mario Balotelli, Joleon Lescott, Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, Jerome Boateng, plus a couple from Arsenal, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor.
That investment has given Manchester City the best defence in the Premier League but, while their ‘goals for’ column does not measure up too badly, Mancini is still accused of being too cagey.
The obvious example came in this fixture last season when an Arsenal side still smarting from consecutive defeats to Barcelona, Tottenham and Wigan rather ‘got away with’ a goalless draw.
Manchester City, who were chasing hard for fourth spot, seemed satisfied with a point when a little more adventure may have brought them all three.
According to Wenger, Mancini may do something similar on Wednesday.
“I expect them to try and be tight defensively and catch us on the break,” said the Frenchman. “We will be faithful to what we do and try to put them under pressure. But as well it could be a very open game – you never can predict that.”
The same goes for this season. However a festive period topped and tailed with home wins over title rivals will give Arsenal something for which they have striven all season - consistency.
And, it will be the springboard for a proper title assault in the second half of this season.Copyright 2017 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