Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger believes his side are firmly in the running for the Premier League title as they prepare to kick off their season at home to manager-less Crystal Palace on Saturday. After an opening day loss, Arsenal went on a superb run of form last term and spent longer at the top of the table than any other team. The disappointment of an eventual fourth place finish was mitigated to some degree by ending the club’s trophy drought via the FA Cup and there has been an encouraging summer in the transfer market to further fuel optimism that they are in with a chance of a first championship since 2004.
Following in the footsteps of Mesut Özil last summer, Alexis Sánchez adds stardust, while Mathieu Debuchy may prove to be an upgrade on the departed Bacary Sagna, David Ospina offers real competition for Wojciech Szczesny and 19-year-old Calum Chambers has already given sign of his potential. In contrast to 12 months ago, Wenger certainly has reason to be in far better spirits than 12 months ago.
“I believe we have a chance because we were a long time top of the league last year,” he said, according to Arsenal’s official website. “It is difficult to know how much better the other teams will be. We have some challenges that we did not face well last year.
“That means we have to take more points from the top teams, that will be our real challenge this year and also keep the consistency against the teams who do not fight for the championship. We finished fourth and made 79 points. Man City won it with 86, so it was very tight in the top four, that [difference] is one or two games. If you win against them, they have three points less and you have three points more, that means it is down to one game.”
While they came undone with heavy defeats against the other members of the Premier League’s top five last season, Arsenal were incredibly efficient in meeting expectations against the teams they were expected to beat. Crystal Palace were downed 2-0 by Arsenal twice last season, the first of those when they were under the caretaker charge of Keith Millen. Extraordinarily that is the situation that Palace will again be in on Saturday.
Following their disastrous start to last season and exit of manager Ian Holloway, Palace appeared sure to continue their record of never having spent consecutive seasons in the Premier League. Instead Tony Pulis came in and quite implausibly led them to not just safety, but 11th place. But just 48 hours before the start of the new campaign Pulis left by “mutual consent,” If reports are to be believed, due to a difference of opinion between manager and chairmen about the tools Pulis required to repeat that accomplishment.
“I am shocked at the moment, I must admit,” Millen told Sky Sports. “I had a phone call from the chairman last night and a brief conversation. We were frustrated because we didn’t get the players in we wanted but we’ve had a good pre-season with the players and we are looking forward to the game tomorrow. It’s been a big shock to me and I am sure it will be to the players. It’s going to be a tough act to follow for someone but it’s early days and we just have to get our heads round it.”
After the captures of Frazier Campbell, Brede Hangeland and Chris Kettings, Palace completed the signing of Martin Kelly on Thursday and the former Liverpool defender could make his debut against Arsenal. Palace should also be able to call upon Adrian Mariappa after recovering from a rib injury. Arsenal will be without their three World Cup winners Özil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, after the trios late return to preseason training. Laurent Koscielny, though, has recovered from an Achilles injury picked up in the Community Shield.
Prediction: There is much to debate about who is in the right over the dispute between Pulis and Palace, but what is unquestionable is that it has left the club in an almighty mess for the start of the season. A decidedly average group of players overachieved last season and a squad that has been barely strengthened this summer can hardly be in the best mental states. Arsenal are not yet at full strength, but they showed in the Community Shield that, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Alexis Sánchez, they are ready to hit the ground running.
Arsenal 3-0 Crystal Palace
Kickoff time: 5.30 p.m.
TV Channel: NBC
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra (now available on Time Warner Cable and Bright House)