“We are in the race and we want to stay in it. We won at West Ham and now we must go game-by-game with a big ambition. But we know that, in this Premier League, you always have to set high standards. As soon as you drop a fraction, you're in trouble."
In many ways, the trip to Newcastle on Sunday will define the festive period for Arsenal. Victory will restore them to the top of the Premier League and suggest Arsène Wenger’s side have come through their tough mid-December matches with minimal damage. On the flipside, and as the manager’s words attest, this is no time to allow a dip in form given a much-fancied Manchester City side rose to the summit on Saturday afternoon.
|Newcastle: Gutierrez (thigh), R Taylor (knee)
Arsenal: Rosicky (doubt – knee), Koscielny (doubt – knee), Ramsey (thigh), Sanogo (back), Diaby (knee), Ox-Chamberlain (knee
Still, Arsenal’s 37 Premier League games in 2013 have brought 79 points – the best tally in the top flight.
But the final game is one of the longest and, right now, toughest trips on the fixture list.
Newcastle have won seven of their nine fixtures in November and December, including successes over Chelsea and Manchester United. Another victory could bring them level with former leaders Liverpool side in fourth place.
Just before Christmas Alan Pardew’s men won 3-0 at a rapidly-improving Crystal Palace and then they put five goals past Stoke on Boxing Day.
“You feel Newcastle have got potential this season,” admitted Wenger. “They have a good offensive force and a very strong bunch of French players who are all close to the national team or in it. That’s why they can be dangerous against anybody and look able to win everywhere.”
Wenger’s team selection will be crucial. The manager sprung a surprise at West Ham on Boxing Day by making only one change from the draw with Chelsea three days earlier and even that was enforced due to a knock on Tomas Rosicky’s knee.
Arguably, the fresher legs won the game – the excellent Santi Cazorla had missed the previous two games, Lukas Podolski was involved for the first time in four months and the other scorer, Theo Walcott, had not started a game between late September and mid-December.
What we want to do is to fight for the title and, at the moment, we are in the race. What can keep us there is consistency.
The centre back struck the all-important goal in this fixture on the final day of the last season to secure Champions League football for Wenger’s men. It was a massive moment in the context of the 2012/13 season but, as the manager readily accepts, it only achieved the minimum standard. This term, the bar is much higher given his Arsenal side have been top of the Premier League for roughly three of the four months since the competition began in August.
“We celebrated [last season] because it was that or play in the Europa League,” said Wenger.
“[This season] what we want to do is to fight for the title and, at the moment, we are in the race. What can keep us there is consistency.
“Until now, we have done that. But you are always judged on your last result. We have had just some games which were very difficult - Everton at home, Napoli in Naples, at Man City and then against Chelsea. So you know that you can drop some points there but the most important thing is to come back and be consistent. That's what is at stake for us.”
As great as Arsenal’s away record has been in 2013 – and with a most respectful nod to the two superb wins in Germany - you have to go back to August 2012 for the last time Wenger’s men won on the road against a side who finished in the top seven of the Premier League. That was when two new boys, Podolski and Cazorla, secured a gleeful win at Liverpool.
Of course there is no guarantee Newcastle will finish as high as they are right now. But, like Arsenal, their current form merits their current position.
The win at West Ham had all the hallmarks of title-contenders. A similar success on Tyneside would feel priceless.