Arsenal Prepare to Run the Gauntlet

Arsenal’s fixture with Bolton later this evening is crucial for many reasons. First, and most obvious, Arsenal can go top of the league with 2-goal margin of victory. But, second, and perhaps more important in the long run, is Arsenal will need all the confidence they can muster as we go into a four-game run of fixtures of the likes no other club will have to deal with all season.

Somehow, the fixture gods up at Premier League offices, have once again thrown a challenge on Arsenal. Last year, it was United, Villa, City, and Chelsea in consecutive league fixtures last November followed by Chelsea and United back-to-back in May. In 2007-08, it was Chelsea, Liverpool, and United in 3 of 4 matches (with the fourth being Bolton) in March-April. Both of those years were complicated by the fact that in 2008-09 we had two more Champions League matches with United in the middle of that stretch and two more with Liverpool in the year before.

If you consider the top 7 to be the big 4 plus City, Spurs, and Villa, only United even had three of those matches scheduled consecutively when they faced us, Spurs, and City early on in the season. Besides them, no other top club will have to face more than 2 top 7 opponents consecutively.

Now, of course, the schedule is electronically-generated, so I am most certainly not proposing that this is due to a league conspiracy against Arsenal. But, it does mean that the club’s “moment of truth” is near on the horizon. Following our FA Cup Fourth Round tie with Stoke on Sunday, Arsenal will effectively be running the gauntlet of the Premier League’s top clubs. Villa away, United at home, Chelsea away, and Liverpool at home… all in a mere 15 days.

We can either emerge on the other side with a strong foothold in the title challenge or be facing a near insurmountable challenge. I would guess that Arsenal need to take an absolute minimum of 7 points from these four games, but, ideally, 10 points. In that same time, United will play us, Portsmouth, and Villa away. Chelsea will play Birmingham, Burnley, and Hull before our meeting on the 10th of February.

This is crunch time, if there ever was one. Of course, the vagaries of the fixture list mean that Arsenal will have a more straightforward run-in to the end of the season than the other two contenders, but that will mean nothing if we cannot get by the next 3 weeks without self-imploding.

Memories of our February collapse in 2007-08 are still vivid in many of the supporters’ minds. I can honestly say that throughout 2007-08, I fully believed we would win the title. I had that same feeling in my gut that I had in 2002 and 2004-that it was our destiny to win the league that season. Then, of course, it all went bad.

We can take comfort from the club’s second-half performance last season, which saw an unbeaten run of games stretch from November 25 to the home defeat to Chelsea on May 10. We will need a similar fortitude this season if we are to win the title. Of course, last season wasn’t an ACN year.

Over the course of the next three weeks, both the players and the supporters need to show just how bad we want to win the league. In a post-match interview on Sunday, Cesc said that other teams think they can win the league, but no one WANTS to win the league as much as us.

The returns of Clichy, Denilson, and Walcott offer some relief from our injury woes (though the return of Bendtner is sorely needed), but the fact is that Arsenal will have to do this more short-handed than any of the other sides in contention. Should we emerge at the end of the gauntlet not only alive and breathing but stronger than when we went in, the league will be ours for the taking.