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Arsenal’s ‘weakness’ against lesser sides is twaddle – how they handle Chelsea will be a real gauge of their title chances

It’s a huge weekend in the English Premier League, with six of the top eight in opposition, and it is a sign of the shifting balance of power that leaders Arsenal have the easiest task on paper against Chelsea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 1:16pm

This is a crunch weekend in the English Premier League, with six of the top eight in opposition, and it is a sign of the shifting balance of power that leaders Arsenal have the easiest task on paper against 14th-placed Chelsea.

Last season [Arsenal] were undefeated in 20 games against bottom-half teams, taking more points in that category than the ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal’s last title-winning campaign

Despite the gap between the two teams this is still the biggest match of the weekend, with top billing as Sunday night’s late game, and it will reveal more about the durability of Arsenal’s title challenge and the substance of Chelsea’s revival under Guus Hiddink.

It was interesting to hear so many commentators heap praise on Arsenal for their fortitude in taking a goalless draw at Stoke last week, hailing the result as evidence that what has changed with the Gunners this season is their resilience in the less glamorous fixtures.

For one thing, that standpoint does a disservice to Stoke, who are a much better footballing side under Mark Hughes than they were under Tony Pulis. More importantly, it falls back on the outdated view that the problem with Arsenal in recent years has been a failure to cope with the more combative teams from further down the ladder.

For several seasons now, Arsenal’s form against the lesser teams has been up to the standard required of title winners. In the past two campaigns, for instance, they have ranked top in the Premier League for points taken against bottom-half teams.

Last season they were undefeated in 20 games against bottom-half teams, taking more points in that category than the ‘Invincibles’ of Arsenal’s last title-winning campaign in 2003-04.

READ MORE: Louis van Gaal needs a win with Manchester United going backwards and time running out

Where Arsenal have really fallen short in recent years is in their matches against their closest rivals, suggesting that the issue has been more a lack of quality. In the past three seasons, Arsene Wenger’s side have never ranked better than fourth in the mini-league of matches involving the top six teams and often that has cost them a chance of making a concerted title challenge.

This season has been different, with Arsenal leading the mini-league of matches involving the top six teams, and that is the clearest sign of a major step forward from Wenger’s side.

Usually Chelsea would be among the top six causing big problems for Arsenal but on current standings they are one of the bottom-half teams that mostly prove easy pickings for the Gunners.

The recent positive for Chelsea is that they are unbeaten since Hiddink took over as interim manager last month, with one win and four draws in the league and a home FA Cup victory against a lower-league team.

READ MORE: Claudio Ranieri expects Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez to rediscover golden touch

Hiddink’s side have conceded at least two goals in three of the five league matches, however, and the only clean sheets were against opponents with scoring problems (a goalless draw with Manchester United and a 3-0 win at Crystal Palace, who have hit a striker crisis and have not scored in their last five league games).

That suggests a good chance for Arsenal, who have won 13 of the 17 league games in which they have scored this season.

The top-eight matches this weekend are Crystal Palace v Tottenham, Leicester v Stoke and West Ham v Manchester City. The Hammers could cause an upset against City, who are far from convincing on the road, but surer bets are Tottenham and Leicester.

Tottenham, like Arsenal, have a good scoring record and usually win when they do so, which suggests a strong chance against Palace on current form.

Where Arsenal have really fallen short in recent years is in their matches against their closest rivals, suggesting that the issue has been more a lack of quality

Leicester have slowed down in recent weeks but not to a significant degree given the difficulty of their fixtures. Stoke present another tough challenge but Leicester continue to look underrated at the odds.

As well as the important matches involving the top teams, there are a couple of big clashes near the bottom of the table with Sunderland hosting Bournemouth and West Brom at home to Aston Villa in a derby.

MORE: Read more from Nick Pulford here

The mini-league of matches involving the bottom eight teams might be a good guide. The standings are headed by Chelsea but Bournemouth and West Brom are next best, which is a prime reason why they have put themselves in a good position to avoid the drop.

Villa are bottom of the mini-league, as well as the overall table, but they are unbeaten in four matches and could get something against low-scoring West Brom, who rarely win without keeping a clean sheet.

The better bet is Bournemouth, who have been improving for the past couple of months and look set to continue on an upward curve having been one of the most notable spenders in the transfer window.

Best Bets

Tottenham away win

Good bet against out-of-form Crystal Palace

Bournemouth on handicap

Solid chance in important clash

Arsenal home win

Rate well at the odds against Chelsea

Hertha Berlin home win

Excellent form against teams outside the top six

Villarreal on handicap

Solid record against bottom-half teams

Shortlist

Leicester, Ipswich, Genoa.