By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – A year that began dismally for Arsenal will end with the Gunners travelling to Brighton and Hove Albion with a first Premier League title for almost 20 years becoming a tantalising possibility.
The contrast could not be greater as they prepare for their New Year’s Eve assignment on the south coast.
Mikel Arteta’s team began this year by going five games without a victory in all competitions, crashing out of the League Cup, FA Cup and losing ground in the race to finish in the top four of the Premier League.
Fast forward 12 months and Arsenal go into their final fixture of 2022 with a five-point lead at the top of the table having won eight of their last nine league games.
Even the six-week shutdown for the Qatar World Cup failed to stall Arsenal’s progress and this week’s 3-1 win over West Ham United showed that even without the injured Gabriel Jesus they are equipped to sustain their title tilt.
The coming weeks, with fixtures coming fast, will test Asrenal’s resolve. Brighton, in seventh place, will be no pushovers and next up is high-flying Newcastle United and games against Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
There is a steely resolve about Arsenal, however, and their full back Oleksandr Zinchenko, no stranger to title action with Manchester City, is confident they have what it takes.
“We have such a great group of people. We have this feeling of togetherness,” he told Arsenal’s website.
Brighton took four points off Arsenal last season and also knocked them out of the League Cup in November so Arteta will be well aware of the test his table-toppers face on Saturday.
“It is going to be a big, big test against that team and we had better be ready,” the Spaniard said.
By the time Arsenal kick off, their lead may have been reduced to two points with second-placed Manchester City hosting struggling Everton earlier in the day’s programme.
City returned to action on Wednesday night with a 3-1 defeat of Leeds United with Erling Haaland’s double taking him to 20 goals in only 14 games since joining from Borussia Dortmund.
Third-placed Newcastle, seven points behind Arsenal, will seek a seventh successive league win when they take on Leeds United at home on Saturday.
With fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur not playing until New Year’s Day at home to Aston Villa, rejuvenated Manchester United can move into the top four in Saturday’s early kickoff at third-from-bottom Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The year’s last round of Premier League fixtures kick off on Friday evening with sixth-placed Liverpool hosting Leicester City and West Ham United hoping to snap a run of four successive league defeats as they welcome Brentford.
West Ham’s defeat by Arsenal was part of a woeful return to action for the teams near the bottom of the table, with only Wolves of the bottom six picking up points.
Things do not get any easier for the strugglers either with second-from-bottom Nottingham Forest facing Chelsea on Sunday and Southampton at Fulham.
(Additional reporting by Adam Millington, editing by Pritha Sarkar)