We may be approaching the end of January, but you can’t escape the feeling that Arsenal’s season is only just beginning.
While the Gunners have enjoyed a strong first half to 2015/16 and currently sit top of the Premier League table, that is not necessarily a cause for celebration. No trophies are handed out at the halfway point, and Arsenal have a reputation for falling away in the latter stages of the campaign. If they are to maintain their momentum, the next few games will be crucial—starting with the visit of Chelsea on Sunday.
Over the next six weeks, Arsenal face a truly daunting schedule. After a trip to Bournemouth, their next three away games are against Manchester United, Tottenham and Barcelona. It’s difficult to conceive of a more testing travel schedule.
It’s not as if their home games are easy, either. After Chelsea, they host Southampton before facing another title-chasing side in Leicester City. This will almost certainly prove to be a pivotal period for Arsenal.
The good news is that cavalry are on the way.
At his pre-match press conference, Arsene Wenger confirmed that Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez should both be fit to face Chelsea. That’s a huge boost to a team that lacked attacking fluency in their last game at Stoke. Two marquee talents like that will instantly transform the threat the Gunners pose.
Francis Coquelin is not far behind, having already returned to training, while Danny Welbeck is expected to resume participation next week. The latter pair could be on course to be involved in next weekend’s FA Cup tie against Championship side Burnley.
With Tomas Rosicky also on the verge of a comeback, Arsenal’s squad is filling out nicely.
As he prepares to run the gauntlet, Wenger will take comfort from the fact that his squad is returning to something like full fitness. Even with the added boost of fresh faces in the squad, the Gunners will surely be sorely tested over the coming weeks.
That begins on Sunday. It’s easy to forget that Arsenal will be hosting the current champions this weekend. So fast has been Chelsea’s fall that their title victory in 2014/15 seems but a distant memory. It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s best chance of lifting the league in more than a decade comes in the year when Chelsea have completely imploded.
However, Chelsea have largely looked more resilient when facing the Premier League’s bigger teams. It’s against the relative minnows that their motivation and desire have been most frequently called into question. In these high-profile clashes, they seem stirred to perform something like their old selves.
That will worry Wenger, whose recent record against the Blues is particularly poor.
He famously never defeated Chelsea under the stewardship of Jose Mourinho, even succumbing to them at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. As much as Wenger will have taken some satisfaction from Mourinho’s ultimate dismissal, he will also have been irked by the fact he never got one over the prickly Portuguese.
Wenger must leave that individual enmity behind and focus on the task at hand. The most important thing about beating Chelsea is the three points.
Having fought their way to the top of the league table, Arsenal have to seize the chance to kick on and tighten their grip on the title. With such a difficult away schedule, their home games are all the more important.
This Chelsea side are a shadow of their former selves — it’s time for Arsenal to assert some dominance over their London rivals.
Read more from James McNicholas, aka @gunnerblog