Club Focus – Arsenal – Dark horses

Unfounded doom and gloom surrounds Arsenal as they have suffered a series of high profile losses in recent weeks. After being written off following their comprehensive defeat at home to Chelsea, the following week of league games saw the Gunners move to within eight points of the top. Should they win their game in hand against Burnley, they would be within five points of the lead going into the hectic Christmas schedule. The very lack of media hype and backing may just see the Gunners emerge as dark horses for the title.

This of course means that Sunday’s clash with Liverpool is key, but then again that was said of the match with Chelsea and having lost, Arsenal’s title credentials were written off. The tag of ‘also-rans’ awaits the loser of Sunday’s clash with neither side enjoying their most consistent form heading into the encounter. The truth is every game is key for a side with title aspirations. A victory over the top team earns 3 points just as a victory over the bottom team does. There is a lot of football yet to be played this season and so whilst Chelsea have put down an early marker, pre-Christmas form alone does not win titles – as Arsenal themselves know all too well.

Arsenal succumbed to a 1-0 defeat against Olympiakos, but the result is unlikely to have any detrimental effect on the team. The side that takes the field against Liverpool is likely to be unrecognisable to that seen on Wednesday, with Arsene Wenger giving an early indication of his focus by naming such an inexperienced squad for the trip to Greece. With not only qualification, but also top spot already secured, this was a chance to blood the youngsters. Kyle Bartley and Thomas Cruise made their debuts, but again Aaron Ramsey was a cut above with Fran Merida the other outstanding Gunner on display. Carlos Vela – who signed a new contract this week – missed a few good chances, but the youngsters couldn’t break through an experienced defence. Arsenal will now eagerly await Friday’s draw to see who they face in the last-16 of the Champions League.

Inevitably a host of Europe’s top strikers are being linked to the club, but a dark horse for a January transfer is Tottenham’s Roman Pavlyuchenko. Whilst the Russian has failed to hit the heights reached at Euro 2008, he remains a mainstay in the Russian national side under Guus Hiddink. In terms of the criteria laid out last week by Wenger for a January signing (a “world-class player who has not played in the Champions League”) he is not cup-tied. However, if he were to recapture the form displayed at the European Championships then he could fulfill both criteria. Pavlyuchenko has been relegated into the ramshackle band of “one tournament wonders” who earned a big-money move on the back of a successful summer tournament and then failed to recall that form. Until his sparkling displays to reinvigorate Arsenal post-Christmas this suspicion arose about Andrey Arshavin, having only come to European prominence at the age of 27. Having seen Arshavin’s display leading the line against Stoke, Wenger may well be tempted to move for Pavlyuchenko and pair the Russians at club as well as international level.

Talk of such a transfer sparks memories of Sol Campbell’s journey across the divide and the backlash he faced as a result. Should Pavlyuchenko transfer to Arsenal he is unlikely to stir up such emotion. With Tottenham likely to allow him to leave, the player’s lack of connection to the club (in contrast to Campbell – a youth academy graduate) and the transfer fee the Russian would be unlikely to evoke such strong feelings from the Spurs fans. Having talked up the possibility of the transfer, two obvious stumbling blocks to such a move are the club rivalry and the price, with the two being intrinsically linked. Tottenham may be willing to sell, but would be wary of letting him go to Arsenal should he fulfill his potential and fire Arsenal to silverware. Similarly, having purchased him for a reported £14m less than two years ago the player’s price tag is likely to put off the canny Mr. Wenger. Who, or if, Arsene does sign this January, the rumour mill is winding up and the saga is set to rumble on.

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