To celebrate Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th match as Arsenal manager, a London derby at Stamford Bridge facing Chelsea was not the ideal choice of fixture and the ensuing 6-0 defeat could have been much worse on a most forgettable afternoon for the long serving Gunner’s boss. The critics have now been swift to dismiss Arsenal’s diminishing Premier League credentials but a look at their remaining fixture list and a potential welcome return of a key midfield player bodes well for a strong end of season finish for Wenger’s team.
During early November, Arsenal were considered strong contenders to clinch the league title as they assumed a five point lead at the top of the table and even by the end of the Boxing Day fixtures, they still led the field by a point.
However, an injury to the influential Aaron Ramsey during the 3-1 defeat of West Ham seriously dented Arsenal’s hopes of maintaining their lead and with further injuries to attacking personnel further hampering team cohesion, the Gunners have begun to look rather vulnerable in recent weeks.
A 6-3 defeat at Manchester City in December was originally disregarded as a one-off which could happen to any team, but a 5-1 mauling at Liverpool coupled with a damaging 1-0 loss at Stoke City have provoked questions as to the ability of Arsenal to mount a sustained title challenge.
The 6-0 defeat at Chelsea did not help matters but a glance at their remaining fixtures reveals five home games remaining and a final sequence of six matches against teams below the top seven. Manchester City at home will be a difficult task with a trip to Everton as arguably the only other game in which Arsenal may not be deemed as clear favourites to claim maximum points.
Another favourable scenario is the expected imminent return of Ramsey with midfield partner Mesut Ozil also hoping to be restored to the team after finding the winter months in English football far more demanding than originally envisaged. Both players were instrumental in helping Arsenal climb to the top of the table during autumn and should they produce a similarly rich vein of form as demonstrated in those early stages of the season, Arsenal cannot be discounted in the title race.
Three heavy away defeats are not the usual attributes of a title winning team but only an opening day loss by Aston Villa has prevented Arsenal from staying unbeaten at the Emirates in the Premier League this campaign.
During a vintage Premier League season, in which the title may not be decided until the final week, none of the four top teams can yet be ignored and while Arsenal may be the outsiders, they could still confound their growing number of critics.