Wenger's Gunners to get the barrel tested

Arsenal will face a stern test of their title credentials when they face back-to-back clashes against Manchester City and Chelsea.

Arsenal's Arsene Wenger looks on as his team play

Sometime in the next 10 days or so we will discover whether Arsenal possess the hallmark of champions or whether Alan Shearer and assorted TV pundits were right to be disbelievers.

It is, as those boxing hype merchants like to scream, showtime. So get ready to rumble for two fixtures which will examine the credentials of Arsene Wenger's team.

First up is Arsenal's match against Manchester City on Saturday followed by a London derby against Chelsea on December 23.

Right now, following Arsenal's 1-1 draw against Everton on Sunday and 2-0 midweek defeat in the Champions League group phase against Napoli, it could go either way.

The Gunners look tired, a touch jaded, which is hardly surprising. They have burned white hot since the season kicked off. Ripped away from the rest, five points ahead of the chasing pack with a brand of football not only easy on the eye but devastatingly effective.

In Aaron Ramsey, with apologies to Liverpool fans shouting the name of Luis Suarez, they possess the player of the season so far. In Olivier Giroud they have the most improved centre forward in the Premier League. In Mesut Ozil the most creative playmaker. In holding midfielder Mathieu Flamini the most inspired signing.

In Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker they have a central defensive partnership which has risen from the wreckage of some desperate moments last season to become a formidable force.

All of which Shearer and his 'Match of the Day' sidekick Alan Hansen have conceded.

So why, with Arsenal leading the Premier League by five points and having joined Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League, do the doubts persist?

It mainly surrounds the lack of quality goal-scoring, line-leading cover for Giroud, unless you count Nicklas Bendtner, which many do not.

Giroud cannot be expected to carry the burden as the spearhead of Arsenal's attack game after game at home and in Europe. Not by himself. Not for an entire season.

Which is why the clamour has grown for Wenger to splash the cash again in January. The chances are he will not, not £42m-style at any rate. The value just is not there in January. Not with all the top teams still in the Champions League which cup-ties men Wenger might fancy, such as Borussia Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski.

Fulham's Dimitar Berbatov has also been linked with a potential move to the Emirates and no-one doubts the Bulgarian's quality. But could Wenger be sure of extracting the sort of consistent sweat and application from Berbatov which might be required as the season approached its potentially frantic denouement? It is by no means a certainty.

Wenger may have to deal with what he has got and that is why the games against City and Chelsea are so pivotal.

Saturday's match at the Etihad Stadium, in particular, presents the season's biggest test so far.

City are beginning to flaunt their quality, a 3-2 win against European champions Bayern Munich in Germany in midweek a measure of increasing confidence under Manuel Pellegrini.

City do not require outside assistance and they should not have received any in the form of a 12.45pm kick-off time which means City have 24 hours more to recover from their European extertions, while Arsenal will barely have emerged from the fog of travel and battle against Napoli before they are thrust into the domestic season's most significant match so far.

Would it have been so difficult to have done the sensible thing and allowed the teams to play in the 4pm kick-off on Sunday, thus ensuring players were rested and able to give of their best?

When billions have been forked out for TV rights, apparently it would.

Yet champions have a knack of overcoming such obstacles. They bounce back from defeats, shrug off injuries, cope with fixture congestion, embrace the toughest challenges.

Wenger believes they can win the title. If Arsenal take four points from their next two games then Shearer and co. had better start believing too.



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