Richard Buxton: Arsenal's best chance to end title drought
With rivals floundering, this could be Gunners' best chance to end title drought
ASTON VILLA 0
(Olivier Giroud 8-pen, Aaron Ramsey 38)
In a season where virtually any team can viably stake a claim in the hunt for the English Premier League title, Arsenal appear to be the only ones truly capable of winning it.
Though they remain a pale imitation of the vaunted "Invincibles" side of 2003-04, Arsene Wenger's players continue to excel while their closest competitors continue to flounder.
Even by the fine margins of the current table, just a solitary point separates top spot and third place, the box seat in the title race very much belongs to the Gunners.
Chelsea's defence of their crown had faltered long before Manchester United began stuttering between various ignominies.
Leicester City's momentum will invariably, and expectedly, cease while Manchester City, the former heirs apparent, still lack the consistency to assert an authoritative grip on the EPL's summit.
After a comfortable yet clinical 2-0 victory over Aston Villa yesterday, signs that the title may finally be taking up an overdue residence in north London next May grow increasingly stronger.
In the face of unprecedented injury crisis - even by the often calamitous standards at the Emirates Stadium - which had threatened to leave Wenger lurking somewhere in the middle distance, they have bucked the near annual trend of falling short of EPL contention before Christmas.
Mesut Oezil has ensured the continuity of a catalytic component and offset Alexis Sanchez's potentially season-defining absence.
Aaron Ramsey, among the scorers at Villa Park yesterday, has been a key beneficiary of the German playmaker's availability.
A new-found, if belated, degree of reverence of Olivier Giroud has also gone some way to aiding Arsenal's ascendancy.
The Frenchman will identify with his side's current predicament as they look to transform themselves from eternal bridesmaids to legitimate contenders.
Once deemed unworthy of following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors, Giroud's joining illustrious company.
He is the seventh Arsenal player to score 50 times in the Premier League after Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Robin van Persie, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Theo Walcott.
But he did it in only 113 appearances, a feat bettered only by Wright and Henry, which should signal an end to the sense of inevitability that he will be replaced by compatriot Karim Benzema sooner or later.
Wenger will face sterner tests than cruising past a perennially beleaguered Villa, headed up by his one-time pupil Remi Garde.
Their encounter with title rivals City next Monday will be followed by further challenges against Southampton and an in-form Bournemouth before the year is out.
Should his side survive that bruising schedule with little indignity, an uncharacteristic spending spree in the January transfer window may go some way to solidifying both Arsenal's threadbare midfield and domestic credentials.
That would shatter the current perception of Wenger as English football's elder statesman; unable to challenge the new breed of managers and, similarly, unwilling.
Only Arsenal themselves stand in the way of ending what would otherwise extend their domestic drought into a 12th successive year.
Carrying on their impressive vein of form far into 2016 will be a battle of wills that is once more fought from within.
He is at the top of his game. the numbers get people to realise he is a good player.
— Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, on Olivier Giroud reaching his 50th EPL goal for the club
BY THE NUMBERS
Olivier Giroud is the seventh Arsenal player to score 50 times in the Premier League after Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Robin van Persie, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Theo Walcott.