Arsenal shaping up as top contender

Gabriel (above) racing away after opening accounts in Arsenal's 2-0 home win over Bournemouth. The leaders will hope to be fourth-time lucky as they have been top on New Year's Day three times in the last 14 years but missed out at the end.
Gabriel (above) racing away after opening accounts in Arsenal's 2-0 home win over Bournemouth. The leaders will hope to be fourth-time lucky as they have been top on New Year's Day three times in the last 14 years but missed out at the end.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Like title rivals, they have weaknesses but Wenger has balanced team to go all the way

LONDON • As 2016 dawns, English Premier League front runners Arsenal go in search of evidence that they are capable of striking out on their own in pursuit of a first title since 2004.

With Manchester United and Chelsea toiling, Liverpool rebuilding under Juergen Klopp and Manchester City damagingly porous, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger appears to have reached a decisive juncture in his 19-year tenure.

His team have been top on New Year's Day three times in the last 14 years, only to see their title hopes fade on each occasion, but Wenger feels that the current crop have what it takes to go the distance.

"I believe that we are mature enough and that we have the requested quality to fight and compete," he said ahead of today's home game with third-from-bottom Newcastle.

"We have a good chance as the statistics show you that eight of the past 11 years, the team who was top on New Year's Day won it."

TIGHT AT THE TOP

Being top on goal difference doesn't make a big difference, it is just down to how well you play.

ARSENE WENGER, who is focusing on his side's performances rather than depending on other teams to slip up

This time around, with German midfielder Mesut Oezil 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 such as Alexis Sanchez has not been felt as keenly as they might have been.

Yet, Arsenal continue to nurse frailties of their own, as shown by their 4-0 Boxing Day drubbing at Southampton. Monday's 2-0 win over Bournemouth, however, was enough to take them top of the table on goal difference after former leaders Leicester could only draw 0-0 with Manchester City.

"Being top on goal difference doesn't make a big difference, it is just down to how well you play," Wenger said.

"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."

The Frenchman received another piece of good news on Thursday - Basel midfielder Mohamed Elneny has passed a medical examination ahead of his proposed £7.3 million (S$15.3 million) move to Arsenal, although the Egypt international must still be granted a work permit for the transfer to be completed.

French midfielder Mathieu Flamini is fit to return but Sanchez faces another week on the sidelines while he recovers from a hamstring problem.

Newcastle, meanwhile, are back in the relegation zone after consecutive defeats.

Manager Steve McClaren still remains confident they 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."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2016, with the headline 'Arsenal shaping up as top contender'. Print Edition | Subscribe