Steelier Gunners could end title drought
Ruthless Arsenal finally look capable of ending title drought
ARSENAL v MIDDLESBROUGH
(Tonight, 10pm, Singtel TV Ch 103 & StarHub TV Ch 228, Eleven Plus HD)
Granit Xhaka's foul, which led to his dismissal during last Saturday's nailbiting 3-2 win over Swansea, was the type of cynical act that was par for the course in top-flight football a couple of decades ago.
Some Arsenal fans have understandably slated the Swiss midfielder for his challenge on Modau Barrow that resulted in the red card being brandished.
After all, the offence was committed on the touchline and inside the Swansea winger's own half - hardly a situation threatening enough to warrant a case for taking one for the team.
However, if I were an Arsenal fan, I wouldn't be too perturbed.
Yes, Xhaka must improve a disciplinary record that has seen him sent off an astonishing eight times since April 2014.
Critics say there's no point signing a player for big money if he's going to spend his Saturday afternoons sat in the stands.
But Xhaka's dismissal - and for me it was a yellow card offence, not a red - demonstrates that Arsene Wenger has finally added steel, balance and ruthlessness to a team that, in recent years, have promised much but delivered relatively little.
Since May 2004, when The Invincibles lifted the Premier League trophy following a faultless campaign, the Gunners have rarely threatened to lift the top prize.
In fact, the last time Arsenal genuinely looked like winning the title was in the 2007-08 season, when they found themselves five points clear at the top of the table with a dozen games to go.
However, when striker Eduardo da Silva fractured his tibia and fibula during the clash with Birmingham on Feb 23, it was more than just his leg that was broken.
That highly charged St Andrew's showdown was only three minutes old when Eduardo was felled by a poor challenge from Martin Taylor.
There was immediate concern, and players from both sides were visibly upset - television broadcasters even opted against showing replays of the incident as it was so gruesome.
Arsenal managed to pull themselves together and looked set to claim a vital 2-1 win, until Gael Clichy gifted Birmingham an injury-time penalty that James McFadden converted to secure the Brummies a 2-2 draw.
Arsenal's resolve was crushed.
At full-time, captain William Gallas threw an almighty tear-soaked tantrum, sitting down on the pitch for a full two minutes before finally being called to the dressing room by Wenger.
Three further draws - against Aston Villa, Wigan and Middlesbrough - followed the Birmingham stalemate, before the Gunners squandered another precious lead to lose at Chelsea.
Arsenal had lost their grip on the title, and the psychological hangover lingered for several more years.
However, the present-day Gunners look as though they're made of sterner stuff - and I'm not basing this judgment purely on Xhaka's act of cynicism.
Wenger's back four have been an Achilles' heel for years but, this season, the excellent Laurent Koscielny has finally found a solid central defensive partner in Shkodran Mustafi.
Left back Nacho Monreal is dependable, while on the other flank, the rapid Hector Bellerin is good enough to be courted by Barcelona.
And then, of course, there's the world-class Petr Cech in goal.
Ahead of them, Xhaka and Francis Coquelin are both ideally suited to the holding-midfield role, allowing Santi Cazorla the freedom to express himself.
At the top end of the pitch, even though Gunners legend Emmanuel Petit is adamant that Arsenal need a 40-goal-a-season striker (do they exist?), Theo Walcott (8), Mesut Oezil (6) and Alexis Sanchez (6) are admirably sharing the scoring burden.
At the beginning of this month, I firmly believed that Manchester City were the finished article and would be impossible to catch.
However, their recent travails have opened the door for a rejuvenated Arsenal, and the Gunners can climb to the summit of the table tonight with a resounding victory over Middlesbrough.
"We live in a jungle where everybody wants to eat you and you have to survive by keeping your vigilance.That’s what competition is about. Every day you have to fight again to survive. The love to win and the competitiveness of the Premier League is very exciting."
- Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, on the EPL
"For me, I don’t care because I want to be in this position in May. We are in the Premier League now and if in May we finish 17th, I will be really, really pleased."
- Middlesbrough boss Aitor Karanka, on his team’s lowly position
- Richard Lenton is the lead presenter at ELEVEN SPORTS NETWORK. Join Richard and his studio guests for ELEVEN's live coverage of the Premier League, which includes tonight's clash between Arsenal and Middlesbrough from 9.30pm, as well as tomorrow's showdowns between Manchester City and Southampton (8pm), and Chelsea and Manchester United (10.30pm). For more details visit www.elevensports.sg