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Crucial for Arsenal to pass Anfield test

If the Premier League leaders can beat Liverpool in their backyard on Saturday, they not only get three valuable points but the confidence of having beaten a top team, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Arsene Wenger's side have excelled on a balanced budget all season. Sang Tan / AP Photo
Arsene Wenger's side have excelled on a balanced budget all season. Sang Tan / AP Photo

It is February and Arsenal are still top of the table.

The grumbles of doubt go on: their squad is not big enough, they will collapse, eventually; they are neither as prolific as Manchester City nor as defensively sound as Chelsea. And yet, with 14 games of the season remaining, they remain two points clear.

It has begun to feel as though this might be an eternal state, that Mikel Arteta could be lifting the trophy at Norwich City’s Carrow Road ground on the final day of the season, in May, and there would still be people not quite sure it is really going to happen.

Whether Arsenal’s season is judged success or failure will hinge largely on a pair of intense two-week periods.

From March 16, they will face Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea away and Manchester City at home with, perhaps, Uefa Champions League ties interspersed.

The run of games that begins at Anfield on Saturday is just as crucial: Liverpool away, Manchester United at home, Liverpool at home in the FA Cup, Bayern Munich at home in the Champions League.

By the end of the month we will know how many fronts Arsenal are fighting on, and we might have a better idea of where they stand against the top sides.

This is not a familiar Arsenal. Superb as Mesut Ozil was early in season, diligently as Olivier Giroud has led the line, for all the dashes of brilliance from Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky, the strength of Arsenal this season has been their resilience, their capacity to endure.

It has become a cliche in the years since Arsenal last won a trophy for Arsene Wenger to praise the “mental strength” as they squandered more cheap points, but this season it is true. This is not the dashing cavalier Arsenal that pass teams to death, although there have been sequences of stunning combination football; this is an Arsenal adept at holding an opponent at arm’s length.

A rough measure of that is demonstrated by the fact that Arsenal already have kept 11 clean sheets in the league this season; last season in total they kept only 14, and in each of the two previous seasons it was 13.

Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals this season. That is in part due to the pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny and in part to the cover that has been provided to them by Arteta, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini.

Again and again this season Arsenal have had protracted periods when they have had to defend, and this season they have proved themselves capable of doing so.

That has been allied to an ability to conjure goals when they were needed.

Arsenal may not have anybody who is going to score hatfuls, but they do have a number of players who can score.

It has become a familiar feeling at the Emirates – Cardiff City, Fulham, Crystal Palace – to think the game was drifting, to wonder if maybe this time there will not be a breakthrough, only for two goals suddenly to arrive.

The mundane 2-0 – Arsenal have won seven times by that margin this season – has become to the present side what the famous 1-0s were to George Graham’s teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The doubt is their form against the biggest sides. They have lost at both Manchester clubs and failed to beat Chelsea at home.

They have beaten Tottenham and Liverpool at home, but in what have arguably been their three biggest challenges so far, they have faltered.

Quite apart from points, that is what makes the game at Anfield so vital: win that, and it takes some of the pressure off the rest of the next two weeks. Lose, and there will be further doubt.

It is a commonplace to speak of Arsenal’s squad as “slender”, but that is not quite accurate. Rather, it is oddly shaped, bulging with attacking midfielders – Kim Kallstrom now having joined Ozil, Cazorla, Walcott, Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Serge Gnabry and Lukas Podolski – and deficient in strikers, with only Nicklas Bendtner to provide cover for Giroud.

If Arsenal do not win the title, it is hard to believe they will not regret failing to sign a striker in January. Wenger has always been cautious, and one of things that makes this season so impressive is the fact that he is competing with Chelsea and City with a balanced budget, but would it really not have been worth risking say, £7 million (Dh42m), on Mirko Vucinic to give renewed vigour to what has the potential to be a truly great season?

Anfield is the first test of how great that could still be.