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Friday, 29 November 2013

Arsenal: Will the Gunners still be top of the Premier League at Christmas?

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There are just 25 days left until Father Christmas visits the good boys and girls of planet Earth, but will Arsene Wenger be carving the turkey with his team still top of the Barclays Premier League?

The Gunners have surpassed everyone's expectations this season, particularly after their opening day defeat at the hands of Aston Villa. Some experts ruled them out as title challengers straight off the bat - citing their lack of strength in depth as their main reason for failure - while others were concerned that Wenger's men would even miss out on the top four.

Twelve games in and Arsenal are four points clear of the chasing pack and playing some great football. Aaron Ramsey has transformed himself over the summer to become the first name on Wenger's team sheet, Olivier Giroud continues to find the back of the net, while Koscielny, Mertesacker and Szczesny have all raised their games defensively.

The return of Mathieu Flamini has been a masterstroke while the arrival of German international Mesut Ozil has given everyone with red and white pumping through their veins a massive lift.

Arsenal have only failed to register twice this season, once at home to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup and secondly away at Manchester United in the league, which isn't bad considering Arsenal "only have one decent striker" at the club. The goals are being spread out among the team which is what any side with title-winning aspirations would be looking for.

But will the Gunners still be top of the tree come Christmas Day?

Well, on Saturday they travel to Cardiff City, who will be buoyed by their point off the champions last Sunday. On paper you would see this as an away win. The Bluebirds are still adjusting to life in the top flight and should struggle with Arsenal's passing and movement. However, their home form is pretty decent. They've taken maximum points off Manchester City and rivals Swansea City, while also drawing with Manchester United and Everton. Malkay Mackay has assembled an honest group of hard-working pros at Cardiff and they are hard to break down. They are also dangerous at corners and set pieces.

It will be a tough game for the Gunners, but the way they are playing at the moment they should leave Wales with all three points. Especially as Arsenal seem to excel on their travels.

Next up it's Hull City at the Emirates. The Tigers famously beat Arsenal in the capital in their debut season in the top flight in 2008 and gave the hosts a repeat performance the following season. Steve Bruce had many a run in with the Arsenal during his playing days and will ensure they are mentally prepared for the game at hand. Hull have only been well and truly battered once this season and that was away at Southampton 4-1. Besides that they have given every opponent a tough encounter.

Arsenal will be desperate to avoid a third straight home defeat to Hull and I believe they have enough about them to learn from their past mistakes.

Then Arsenal face four huge games in a row. First up are high-flying Everton. Under Roberto Martinez the Toffees have transformed themselves from a high-pressing, determined, never-say-die side into one that is prepared to get the ball down, keep possession and entertain. With Romelu Lukaku leading the line, Everton are a team to fear and they have historically always given the Gunners a hard time.

Following that it's Napoli in the Champions League, where anything other than a 3-0 defeat will see them through to the last 16.

Back to the league and Arsenal face arguably their toughest test of the season so far away at Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini may not be able to win away from home to save his life, but at the Etihad City are exceptional. Just ask Tottenham! Man United and Everton are the only sides to have scored at City in the league.

City have taken some of Arsenal's best players over the years but the Gunners have still been a thorn in their side. Over the last six games, the honours have been even with two wins and defeats each. If Arsenal could leave the blue half of Manchester with maximum points that would be a huge signal of intent.

And then two days before Christmas itself, Arsenal host their old nemesis Chelsea and Jose Mourinho. What a cracker that promises to be. Arsenal have lost their last three meetings with the Blues and Jose Mourinho has never lost to Arsene Wenger. What a time this would be for Le Professor to rewrite that wrong.

There was a time when Chelsea couldn't buy a win over Arsenal. That was of course until Wayne Bridge popped up with the crucial goal in that Champions League clash in 2004. Since then the Blues have been top dogs. Arsenal have only managed to see off their capital rivals four times over the past nine years.

I'm sure most Arsenal fans would take a point if it was offered right now. Three points would have the Gooners walking in a winter wonderland. Defeat is not an option.

Of course whether Arsenal are still top at Christmas depends on how the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Man City and Man United get on over the next month too.

Liverpool face Hull, Norwich, West Ham, Spurs and Cardiff before taking on Manchester City and Chelsea away during Christmas and New Year.

Chelsea play Southampton this weekend before visiting Sunderland and Stoke, hosting strugglers Crystal Palace and then Arsenal.

Man City have a few potential banana skins on their way to Christmas. They welcome Swansea to the Etihad on Sunday before travelling to West Brom and Southampton before entertaining Arsenal followed by Fulham away.

Then Manchester United, who cannot be ruled out of the picture just yet, face Spurs, Everton, Newcastle, Aston Villa and West Ham.

So there are 15 points up for grabs between now and Christmas. Will Arsenal be sitting pretty at the top of the tree with maximum points or will the likes of Everton, Man City and Chelsea take points off the leaders to really test Arsenal's title-winning credentials?

Whatever your views, we'd love to hear from you.

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