Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger has guided Arsenal to three Premier League titles, but none since 2004. Getty Images

Arsenal were the best performing Premier League team in 2015 and reached the halfway point of the season on top of the table. But the challenge remains for them to go the distance over the course of a season and deliver the club’s first title in 12 years. Over 38 games played during the calendar year, Arsenal secured 81 points, nine more than their closest competitors Manchester City. And a 2-0 win over Bournemouth on Monday meant they finished 2015 on top of the table that matters, alongside surprise package Leicester City.

But those accomplishments will be mere footnotes should Arsene Wenger’s side fail to last the pace and lift the trophy in May. The last 10 days have shown why many continue to express doubts over whether Arsenal can do just that.

Five days after producing an impressive performance to beat the team highly regarded as being their chief challengers for the championship, Manchester City, came the type of inexcusable defeat that has so regularly followed just when the weight of expectation begins to gather around the Gunners. A 4-0 defeat to Southampton was as emphatic as it was humbling. That it was followed by a comfortable win against Bournemouth only highlighted the inconsistency, although admittedly it also demonstrated Arsenal’s ability to shake off adversity. Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s first match of 2016, Wenger insists that his side has the required characteristics to continue their success.

“If you look at the January 1 to December 31 we were consistent and have improved our results,” he said at his pre-match press conference on Wednesday. “Overall the team has grown in stature, is more mature, more reliable and we won the FA Cup and the Community Shield, and in the Premier League we are in a strong position in. So let’s hope 2016 will be better.

“I am confident we will fight to stay there, but it’s a long way to go, we are just halfway. I believe that we are mature enough and we have the requested quality to fight and compete. The most important thing is to feel, at the end of the season, that we have given absolutely everything to be successful. After, if somebody has been better than us, we will accept it, but we want to fight to show that we have a chance.”

For the match with Newcastle, Wenger will again be without Alexis Sánchez , although the Chilean could be back for next weekend’s FA Cup third round match against Sunderland. Midfielder Mathieu Flamini may, though, be fit again. And, with Wenger suggesting that he will again rotate his side, the Frenchman could go straight back into the lineup. Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal look set to return to the side after sitting out against Bournemouth, while Mesut Özil may be among those to be given a rest.

If Arsenal have shown signs of inconsistency of late, it is nothing compared to their next opponents. This season Newcastle have beaten Norwich City 6-2 and earlier this month recorded wins back-to-back wins over Liverpool and Tottenham. Yet they have also been beaten 6-2 by Manchester City and 5-1 by Crystal Palace. Their current run of three matches without a win has left them back in the relegation zone. And it is little wonder that manager Steve McClaren is happy to be seeing the back of 2015.

“We feel as if we are getting there after a tough start,” he said, according to Sky Sports. “That is the first half of the season gone. 2015 is about to end—good. We cannot wait for the next year. It has not been good enough and that is why we are in the bottom three. That is where we are realistic and we need to do something about it—and we will do.”

Newcastle’s injury problems remain, with Papiss Cisse and Tim Krul among those still ruled out. Goalkeeper Rob Elliot could return after missing out in the 1-0 defeat to West Brom last time out through illness.

Prediction: Newcastle have developed a habit this season of saving their best performances for the bigger games and they could do so again on Saturday. But the balance of probability lies with a comfortable win for Arsenal. Newcastle have a soft underbelly and Arsenal have the ability to exploit it against opponents who they have beaten in their last eight meetings.

Predicted score: Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle United

Probable lineups

G: Cech

D: Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Monreal

M: Flamini, Ramsey

Campbell, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain

F: Giroud

Newcastle United
G: Elliot

D: Janmaat, Mbemba, Coloccini, Dummett

M: Colback, Tiote

Sissoko, Wijnaldum, Perez

F: Mitrovic

Kickoff time: 10 a.m. EST

TV channel: NBCSN

Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra