By Mike Collett
League leaders Arsenal face the first major obstacle of their tough February assault course when they travel to Anfield on Saturday for the first of two meetings with Liverpool over successive weekends.
The chances of Arsene Wenger’s side ending their nine-year wait for a trophy will be clearer by the end of a gruelling month.
With a home Premier League game against Manchester United, an FA Cup tie with Liverpool and a Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich to follow Saturday’s clash, a poor run could see them fall by the wayside in three competitions.
They lead the league by just two points from Manchester City, who travel to Norwich City, and Chelsea, who are at home to Newcastle United, and defeat at Anfield could see them slip to third.
The Londoners, however, are a team in form, have not lost on their last six Premier League visits to Anfield and could be boosted as they seek a third successive win there by the return of Jack Wilshere after injury.
He could line up in midfield alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored both goals in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace.
Arsenal will be without the suspended Mathieu Flamini, injured Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, but their confidence is sky high after six wins in their last seven league matches.
Defeat for Liverpool would leave them 11 points off the top and manager Brendan Rodgers feels an assault on the title is now out of the question.
“I wouldn’t say we will be challenging for the title this season, but will we play a part in it? Of course we will and we want to finish as high as we can,” he said.
“We will be fighting right to the very end, but if I am asked for an honest answer I would say it’s too soon for us.”
Manchester City, who missed the chance to knock Arsenal off the summit on Monday, when they lost 1-0 at home to Chelsea, travel to Norwich, who they beat 7-0 in November.
They will be eager to rebound immediately after losing their perfect home league record as well as their 20-game unbeaten streak.
Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho fooled no-one on Monday when he described his side, who could be top by the end of the weekend, as “a little horse that needed milk” in a race with the “two big horses” of Arsenal and City.
Although Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have no realistic chance of winning the title, they meet at White Hart Lane on Sunday in a match that could well define their league aspirations.
The race for fourth and Champions League qualification is likely to go the wire with Liverpool currently in the box-seat on 47 points.
Everton are fifth on 45 points, one point and one place above Spurs, who are four clear of Manchester United.
With United at home against a bottom-of-the-table Fulham side in dreadful form, neither Spurs nor Everton will want to drop points in Sunday’s lunchtime match at White Hart Lane.
Eleven clubs are entwined in the battle to avoid the drop.
Swansea City, who are 12th, but without a manager after parting company with Michael Laudrup on Tuesday, are only two points clear of the drop zone which currently has West Ham United, Cardiff City and Fulham in its clutches.
Fulham have lost their last four league matches and were abject in their 1-0 extra-time defeat to League One (third tier) strugglers Sheffield United in an FA Cup fourth round replay at Craven Cottage on Tuesday.
Despite United’s indifferent form under coach David Moyes, anything other than a resounding win against Fulham, now coached by former United assistant Rene Meulensteen, would be one of the season’s major upsets.
Meulensteen, who has been Fulham coach for two months, described Tuesday’s performance as their worst since he arrived, saying they had reached “rock bottom” and they needed to improve rapidly if they are to survive.
West Ham will be without banned striker Andy Carroll for their visit to erratic Aston Villa, who are still not safe despite sitting in 10th spot.
Cardiff travel to Swansea for what is always a fiercely-fought South Wales derby, hoping to twist the knife even further into the Swans following Laudrup’s departure.