Make or break time for Arsenal
It is hard to imagine a tougher or more significant run of games for Arsenal. Their next four league opponents are Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, a season-defining set of matches that is followed by a trip to Porto in the Champions League last 16.
By late February the Gunners could be sitting on the top of the Premier League table and well on the way to a Champions League quarter final place. However, they could just as easily have slipped out of the title race and be facing a European recovery job at the Emirates.
It is for this reason that Arsene Wenger fielded a weakened team in Arsenal’s FA Cup fourth round clash at Stoke City, aware that his squad is ravaged by injuries and would be unable to cope with further setbacks.
With Manchester United and Liverpool already out of the competition, Arsenal’s 2010 FA Cup odds were the shortest for some time, but Wenger clearly felt he had bigger fish to fry.
All Arsenal fans would accept defeat at Stoke in exchange for a decent return from the forthcoming fixtures and Wenger knows his first choice players, on a nine match league unbeaten run, are in the form needed to justify his decision.
However, a decisive outcome in Arsenal’s crucial portion of the season is unlikely. This has been the closest Premier League title race in recent times – the top three teams are well-matched and unable to put together a significant run of results that would pull them clear.
Arsenal are currently threatening to do that, but the forthcoming difficult matches will surely end their winning streak. Similarly, they are unlikely to implode, largely because they have a decent record against their main rivals and should take a respectable number of points from the fixture.
Meanwhile, teams north of the border are preparing for the fifth round of the Scottish FA Cup which takes place this weekend.
The Scottish FA Cup odds make Celtic the favourites to lift the trophy but they still do not know who they will be facing in the next round as the SFA have ordered Dunfermline and Stenhousemuir to replay their game after the former fielded an ineligible player.