LONDON • Arsene Wenger heaped praise on his Arsenal team after their 2-1 victory over Manchester City on Monday and said beating a fellow title contender had strengthened belief within the club that they can be Premier League champions for the first time since 2004.
First-half goals from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud proved enough for Arsenal in a contest that City dominated in terms of possession (63 per cent) and territory.
Manuel Pellegrini's men were undone by a combination of their defensive sloppiness, a lack of penetration in attack and the hosts' ruthlessness on the break.
They got a goal back via Yaya Toure's stunning long-range strike in the 82nd minute - a fitting finish to a 18-pass build-up. However, they could not find an equaliser and remained in third place, four points behind Arsenal in second.
Wenger's team are only two points behind leaders Leicester, with the Frenchman going into the Christmas fixtures enthused by the prospect of eventually overhauling Claudio Ranieri's men.
After all, five of Arsenal's last six top-flight titles - including their last two Premier League triumphs - have seen them in second place at Christmas.
"I don't know what kind of statement it makes but for us it was a vital game, a game you come out very happy because it has shown the ingredients you need in big games - strong organisation, moments of brilliance, moments when you need to hang on," said Wenger.
"It's too early to say (we will) win the league but it strengthens our belief that we have a word to say."
Defender Per Mertesacker also refused to get carried away, insisting that the Gunners are still searching for consistency.
"We haven't proven anything yet and we haven't been that consistent that we can talk about that," he said after Arsenal's fourth-straight win in all competitions.
"We go game by game and concentrate on having a game plan and trying to implement it. That has been our strength so far against the big team and it makes us stronger as a unit."
Arsenal, who will be without key man Alexis Sanchez until Jan 10 at the earliest following an injury setback, have lost to West Bromwich, West Ham and Chelsea. But they are unbeaten against sides in the top five with emphatic wins over Manchester United and Leicester.
For City, this was a fifth league defeat of the season - they lost seven matches during the whole of the previous campaign - and comes at a bad time for Pellegrini given the possibility of him losing his job as City manager is once again being discussed openly in light of Pep Guardiola's availability.
The last team to lose five or more games before the midway point and still managed to be crowned champions of England were Everton in 1986-87.
The Chilean remained defiant, insisting his side did not deserve to lose, but admitted that they have to get better, especially on defence.
A defensive error from Eliaquim Mangala handed Arsenal their second goal on the stroke of half-time.
"I think in the last games we made a lot of collective mistakes," Pellegrini said. "Today we improved in that sense but we made an individual mistake."
THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS