LONDON, Jan 1, (Agencies): As 2016 dawns, 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 Jurgen 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 Saturday’s home game with third-bottom Newcastle United.
“The most important thing is to feel, at the end of the season, that we have given absolutely everything to be successful.
“It is not the date (New Year’s Day) that is decided you win the league. It shows you that 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.”
Arsenal continue to nurse frailties of their own, as shown by their 4-0 Boxing Day drubbing at Southampton, but Monday’s 2-0 win over Bournemouth was enough to take them top of the table on goal difference after former leaders Leicester City could only draw 0-0 with Manchester City.
Leicester lost 1-0 at Liverpool prior to Tuesday’s goalless stalemate with City, but manager Claudio Ranieri says that his players are determined not to let their early-season momentum peter out.
“We’ve had a fantastic half-season, it’s unbelievable what we are doing and we must continue,” said the Italian, whose team welcome Bournemouth to the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
“We will fight right until the end and we want to win. If we give 100 percent, then we accept every result.”
Manchester City, three points off the pace in third place, continue to oscillate between the sublime and the ridiculous and have gone 10 league games without recording back-to-back victories.
Against Watford they will once again be without skipper Vincent Kompany, after he aggravated a calf injury during the 4-1 Boxing Day win over Sunderland, and manager Manuel Pellegrini admits that he is desperate to get to the bottom of the influential centre-back’s injury problems.
“We are trying to do all (we can) to know how we can help Vincent to try to be fit and not to continue with the same calf problems,” the Chilean told his pre-match press conference on New Year’s Eve.
“Everything the club can do, we are going to do it.”
City’s travails have given hope to Tottenham Hotspur, who are just a point behind them in fourth place prior to their trip to Everton on Sunday, when they will be chasing a fourth successive league win.
Spurs’ form is also of concern to both Liverpool and United, who find themselves five points off the Champions League places at the season’s halfway stage.
Speculation about United manager Louis van Gaal’s future has quietened down since Monday’s 0-0 draw with Chelsea, but the volume will rise quickly if his side fail to produce an adequate performance at home to Swansea City, who have won the last three encounters between the teams.
“We have to get points, otherwise the gap is too big and that is why we have to do what we have to do,” Van Gaal said.
“We have to work, prepare the game, perform and then evaluate the game again. That is of course much more difficult when you don’t win than when you win.”
Champions Chelsea, three points above the relegation zone, visit fifth-place London rivals Crystal Palace on Sunday with Guus Hiddink still seeking the first win of his second stint as interim manager.
Meanwhile, neither bottom club Aston Villa nor second-bottom Sunderland can afford defeat in their showdown at the Stadium of Light, with the two teams respectively 11 and seven points from safety.
Much-travelled van Gaal has coached some of the biggest clubs in world football but Manchester United’s fans are the best he has come across, the Dutch veteran said on Thursday.
The 64-year-old former Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Ajax Amsterdam supremo has been the target of strong media criticism following United’s run of eight matches without a victory in all competitions.
Van Gaal, however, hailed the “fantastic” reaction of the United supporters.
“I’ve had bad periods at all my clubs and I have to say the best fans are here at Manchester United,” he told reporters ahead of Saturday’s home game with Swansea City.
“In such a difficult period, they were applauding the performance of the players and that’s fantastic.”
United have slipped to sixth in the Premier League, nine points behind joint leaders Arsenal and Leicester City, and Van Gaal is aware his team have an urgent need to arrest their slide.
“We have to get points otherwise the gap is too big,” said the Dutchman. “We have to work, prepare the game, perform and then evaluate the game again.
“That is, of course, much more difficult when you don’t win than when you win. We need to win because we want to be at the top of the league, not the middle.”
United dominated their 0-0 draw with champions Chelsea at Old Trafford on Monday but were again undone by sub-standard finishing from their attacking players.
“We’ve had many games like that,” said Van Gaal, who has also twice coached the Dutch national team. “The way we’ve played this season, we’re more or less always the dominant team.”
“Certainly at home we have played many, many matches like that but we don’t score and that is our problem … goals are the most important thing.”