ARSENAL can complete a quick double over managerless Cardiff City and consolidate their position at the top of the table when the relentless Premier League holiday schedule continues on New Year’s Day.
While players and fans in other countries have a rest from soccer over the Christmas holiday, Wednesday’s matches will be the fourth in little over ten days in England.
With the campaign at the halfway mark after 19 matches, Arsenal, with 42 points, lead the table at the start of the new year for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They are followed by Manchester City (41), Chelsea (40) and Everton (37).
The race is so close that Liverpool, who were top at Christmas, are now fifth on 36 points after two defeats in four days at Manchester City and Chelsea.
Brendan Rodgers’s side, who are at home to Hull City, are only two points clear of both champions Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, who meet at Old Trafford.
The situation is even tighter at the other end with only seven points separating 11th-placed Swansea City (21) and table-propping Sunderland, who gained a point at Cardiff on Saturday in a 2-2 draw after scoring twice in the last eight minutes.
Cardiff, back in the top flight for the first time in 51 years, are down among the strugglers, too, and it will be a huge upset if they take even a point from the Emirates against an Arsenal team who beat them 3-0 in Cardiff at the end of November.
Since then manager Malky Mackay has left after a protracted dispute with owner Vincent Tan, who seems set on replacing him with Norwegian Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Meanwhile, caretaker David Kerslake will try and motivate his men to an improbable victory.
In his weekly letter to supporters on Monday, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said there was “something special” about his current team and praised their mental strength which, he said, was “something that has previously been questioned many times.”
“We showed that at West Ham when we were 1-0 down and came back to win 3-1 and we showed it again at Newcastle when we had our bit backs to the wall in the last 15 minutes.
“There’s a great solidarity and a great spirit in the side.
“In terms of challenging at the top of the table, we believe in ourselves … I hope it will be enough but there’s a long way to go and it’s still too early to talk about the title.”
Wenger is talking from experience. Arsenal are one of only three teams in the last ten years to have led the table at the start of the new year and failed to win the title.
Arsenal will be without midfielders Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, defender Kieran Gibbs and striker Olivier Giroud for the home game with Cardiff City and have doubts over five other players.
Arsene Wenger told reporters on Tuesday the Premier League leaders had yet to receive a specialist’s report on Ozil’s shoulder injury and that Ramsey would be out for three more weeks with a thigh strain.
The pair both missed the 1-0 league win at Newcastle United on Sunday.
Giroud, who scored the only goal at Newcastle, will miss out against Cardiff because of an ankle injury and left back Gibbs has a calf problem.
Wenger also said he was uncertain about the fitness of defenders Nacho Monreal andThomas Vermaelen, midfielders Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere and striker Theo Walcott.
Arsenal go into the match with a one-point lead over Manchester City and Wenger said he was proud of the fact his side accumulated more points in 2013 than any other team in the league.
Manchester United, in 2003-04, and Liverpool in 2008-09 are the others, and if Arsenal slip up there will be no shortage of serious challengers for this year’s crown.
Manchester City, who have won all ten league games at home, have been less impressive away from the Etihad stadium. Like Arsenal, they face Welsh opposition today when they visit Swansea, who they beat 3-0 on December 1.
Chelsea are away at Southampton while Everton visit Stoke City, who have been thumped 5-1 by Newcastle and 3-0 by Spurs in their last two matches.
Spurs, who have picked up seven points from nine over Christmas since Tim Sherwood replaced Andre Villas-Boas as manager two weeks ago, drew 2-2 with Manchester United at White Hart Lane on December 1 and head for Old Trafford where they won 3-2 last season.
United, after a shaky start to the season under new manager David Moyes, have improved dramatically in recent weeks, winning their last six matches in all competitions and their last four in the Premier League.
Wayne Rooney, who scored both United’s goals at White Hart Lane a month ago, is expected to return after missing Saturday’s 1-0 win at Norwich City and another win for United will strengthen the feeling that the champions are still involved in this season’s title race.