BURNLEY, December 15 – This has been a season of unrelenting surprises in the English Premier League, and nowhere has the shock therapy been more acutely felt than Arsenal.Arsene Wenger’s side has lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous with bewildering frequency this term, their inconsistency indicative of a division which has shed much of its reputation for predictability.
From title race deadbeats two weeks ago, after a home defeat by Chelsea, they now find themselves grasping eagerly at a lifeline thrown by their rivals.
An 11-point deficit has been slashed to six, courtesy of Chelsea and Manchester United leaking unexpected points, and Arsenal still have a home game against Bolton in hand.
The north Londoners have done their bit too, of course.
Stoke were brushed aside with relative ease at Emirates stadium before a more notable statement of intent was made at Anfield on Sunday, when they came from a goal down to defeat Liverpool, despite missing a clutch of first team regulars.
Another victory at Burnley on Wednesday and the talk of a genuine title challenge would swell from quiet murmurs to an excited chatter.
Wenger is already struggling to contain himself.
"We feel that we have sent out a message to all the people who wrote us off after we were beaten at home by Chelsea," the Frenchman said.
"We have got ourselves back very close to the leaders – just six points away from Chelsea with a game in hand.
"We have come back at them in a very short space of time since they beat us in late November. Even I did not expect that to happen. We have shown that we have mental strength. For us, we are back into contention following the other results from Saturday."
On the face of it, there can be no arguing with that assessment. Yet the sceptics who confidently discounted Arsenal from the championship race will not be penning their apology letters just yet.
For all Arsenal’s upturn in form, the doubts remain: can a defence which has kept just three clean sheets in its last 15 games really serve as a solid foundation for a title tilt? Can a team expecting to win the league seriously invest all their faith in a goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, whose confidence appears to have imploded?
And, most pressingly of all, how can Wenger hope to cope without Robin van Persie?
The Dutchman is out for the next five months with ankle ligament damage that required surgery and Arsenal’s options in his absence are thin. Andrey Arshavin has been deployed as a lone central striker in the last two Premier League games and, while he has scored in both, it still smacks of a short-term measure.
The Russian does not enjoy a role which can often leave him isolated and pining for possession.
The imminent return of Nicklas Bendtner from injury will provide some more beef to a forward-line overburdened with small, scampering forwards but the Dane, while much improved since his hapless early days at Arsenal, is simply not in van Persie’s class.
The trip to Turf Moor will serve as a litmus test of Wenger’s ability to find solutions. The aversion of his team to north-western outposts such as this is well known but they cannot afford a slip-up against Owen Coyle’s side, who have lost some of their early-season swagger in recent weeks.
The Clarets have failed to win any of their last five matches and, remarkably, were subjected to the odd jeer by disgruntled home fans after the 1-1 draw with Fulham last weekend.
That provides proof of how expectations have sky-rocketed in east Lancashire.
"We have gathered 18 points, which is probably 18 more than anybody felt we would have because we were understandably written off at the start of the season," Coyle said.
"You get the odd moan from people who don’t realise what is involved. This group of players keep going, they give me everything they have got and they have quality. I don’t get too caught up with what others say.
"If people want to continue to write us off then that’s up to them. That’s why we love football, everybody has got an opinion."