Arsenal are in control of the title race, but tougher tests are yet to come

The Premier League title is Arsenal’s to lose, and if they continue to pass every test of their credentials, they will become champions for the first time since 2004. But Mikel Arteta’s side are yet to arrive, and the looming shadow of Manchester City is beginning to emerge. Encapsulating the club’s aspirations.

Sunday’s 3-2 win over Manchester United at the Emirates seemed like a significant moment for many reasons. Eddie NketiahThe 90th-minute goal turned one point into three. The win was in response to City’s 3-0 win over Wolves earlier in the day, and the victory highlighted the strength of character within Arteta’s side. But despite going five points clear at the top, and with second-placed City playing an extra game, Arsenal are only halfway through the season.

The six-week lockdown due to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar during November and December changed the pace of this season’s title race and created a sense of the unknown as to how teams might benefit or suffer from the extended hiatus in domestic action. . But whichever way the numbers are crunched and historical precedent set, it’s clear Arsenal are in a strong position to win their first title in 19 years, having amassed 50 points at the halfway point. (Even the 2003-2004 film Invincible had only 45 points at that point.)

With their rivals, including the City side who have won four titles in the past five seasons, failing to match Arsenal’s incredible consistency this season, the ability of Arteta’s side to keep winning made them favorites for the title. Players, for now at least, are enjoying the ride and playing in a carefree style contributes to improving their level.

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January should have been a stern test for Arsenal’s prospects, with matches against Newcastle, Tottenham and Man United, but they picked up seven points from those games and did so in style, showing no sign of the jitters or nerves that can come with their presence. at the top of the table.

A five-point lead at the halfway point is by no means a key indicator of a successful title challenge, especially when you still have to play your biggest rivals home and away – the team most likely to deny you the lead at the end of the match. the classroom.

Friday’s FA Cup fourth-round match against City at the Etihad will be the first time the two sides have faced each other this season. But with Arteta and Pep Guardiola expected to make big changes, that will only give us a small sense of how the title race will play out, and neither manager will focus too much on the outcome in terms of the Premier League battle.

When City visit the Emirates in the league on February 15th, it will get real for Arteta and his players. Everything that is built for this game will be the undercard of the main event.

It’s a game that will draw obvious comparisons to Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Newcastle in March 1996, when Eric Cantona’s win caused Newcastle to collapse and signaled United a title win.

Why the similarities? At the time, Newcastle were the exciting new force, playing cool, attacking football that saw them lead by 10 points after 19 games. United were the veteran winners, looking for consistency, but knowing they’d been there and done it before.

And this is how it went. United’s winning machine pressed gear and Newcastle faltered. Freestyle football has been replaced by stifling tension and Newcastle have won just five of their last 10 games – United have won eight of their last 10 – and Sir Alex Ferguson’s side topped the table at the end of the season with four points.

Arsenal simply have to avoid the fate of Newcastle and ensure they don’t give City momentum next month. If they avoid defeat, the title race will be much clearer, but losing to the champions will add to the pressure and cause fans to study the remaining matches for potential pitfalls, such as three quick successive matches at the end of April against City (away), Chelsea (home) and Newcastle (away). ).

Of course Arsenal doesn’t have to be the modern Newcastle version of Kevin Keegan. And they can emulate Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, who were six points clear of the pack after 19 matches in 2016-17 and went on to win the title. They could also repeat the form that led Leicester City to a surprise title in 2015-16, when Claudio Ranieri’s side stunned the soccer world by winning the Premier League. (Though, after 19 games, Leicester are second on goal difference to Arsenal.)

When Arsene Wenger led Arsenal to the first of their three Premier League titles in 1997-98, Arsenal were 13 points behind leaders United at the halfway stage, with a game in hand, but his side finished a point clear of United at the top. . So one thing is clear: a midway lead can often lead to nothing. It’s just a stepping stone to tough times to come, and those tough times are very close to Arsenal.

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