Arsenal could be own worst enemy as title challenge sees tension rise

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LONDON — Following their 1-1 draw with Everton on Arsenal, one thing is clear as we enter the cold winter months of the long Premier League season and teams at the top of the table continue to drop points.

Arsenal only have one main competitor for the title… themselves.

After their slightly nervous display on Sunday, Arsene Wenger revealed that his side must stay focused on the matter on hand as they’re five points clear at the summit. Despite all the hype and hubbub from many speculating a first Premier League title since 2004 will arrive at the Emirates this season, their long-time French manager is urging caution but believes his team are much stronger than they have been in recent years.

“We have shown consistency up until now and an absolutely fantastic attitude,” Wenger said. “That’s why we are different to last season. We are a better team too and more stable defensively and better offensively. Overall, you could see today with the toughness of the game we have to prepare ourselves for every single game.”

The weight of expectancy on Arsenal’s shoulder was palpable from the offset in an entertaining end-to-end game, as Everton put in an impressive display that pushed the league leaders to their limits.

(MORE: Arsenal 1-1 Everton – Late breakthroughs cancel as Deulofeu denies Arsenal all 3 points)

When Mesut Ozil put Arsenal 1-0 up in the 80th minute, the relief was obvious amongst the home fans as they celebrated the strike with thunderous chants of “1-0 to the Arsenal” and they believed, that was that. Many times this season it has been, as five shutout wins from their last seven league games prove, but that huge sigh of relief following Ozil’s goal turned into groans of discontent four minutes later as Gerard Deulofeu scored a stunning late equalizer to send Arsenal’s fans into silence.

Ozil’s opener should have kicked Arsenal on but they sat back, looked edgy and failure to clear several crosses late on cost them all three points. Wenger was left scratching his head.

“The regret I have is that we were pulled back after being 1-0 up with seven minutes to go,” Wenger said. “You have to give credit to Everton, they continue to play well and they always looked dangerous. We played against a very good side we are disappointed to get caught with one at the end, but it’s still a point.”

Throughout the draw with the Toffees, especially early on, Arsenal’s fans were getting on their sides back as their team gave the ball away needlessly and the away side were pressing the Gunners high up the pitch to great success. Negativity reigned supreme around the Emirates as large spells of prominent silence from the home fans was telling. U.S. international ‘keeper Tim Howard put in an inspired performance in goal for Everton, pulling off three fantastic stops to thwart the league leaders as anxiety levels rose in the Emirates as the pulsating clash wore on.

source: Reuters
Deulofeu’s late goal stunned the Gunners as their mental toughness in the tough moment coming up will be key.

“We took time to get into the game, Everton started stronger,” Wenger said. “After that we had three one-on-one’s against the ‘keeper in the first half. But we didn’t our chances very well.”

Wenger was right, plenty of players like Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla weren’t quite at the races as needless giveaways were greeted with endless sighs and cries of disbelief from the home fans. You can’t blame the players for feeling a bit under pressure, Arsenal’s fans are desperate for some silverware after eight barren years and reminders of that are all around the Gunners stars as they continue to stay on top of the PL.

Emblazoned on the balconies splitting up the four tiers of the vast 60,000 plus Emirates Stadium are the outlines of which trophies they’ve won and which year they’ve won them in. FA Cups, Premier League titles, League Cups… they all hang over the pitch as an ominous reminder, to the players at least, of Arsenal’s great history and level of success spanning decades.

Asked afterwards if Arsenal were serious title contenders this season, Wenger kept his cards close to his chest.

“It depends what you call serious,” Wenger said. “As long as we are five points ahead we cannot rule ourselves out. So, let’s keep that going. It shows you that it will be a tough a Premier League and consistency, in the end, will be a reward. Consistency if of course down to us to keep this attitude going from now until the end of the season.”

This season many expect them to break that duck of no trophies since switching from their historic Highbury Stadium for the Emirates back in 2006. But as the nervy atmosphere on Sunday suggested, that huge level of expectancy could bring the walls crumbling down around them.

Against Everton, some cracks were starting to show.

Their next two games against Manchester City and Chelsea may reveal further blemishes but the toughest task will be how to deal with their own demons that have robbed them of success in recent campaigns. Mental toughness is key and Wenger believe his sides attitude is spot on, as Arsenal have rolled teams over all season and deservedly sit top of the standings.

But now the biggest battle of all is coming up, a battle against themselves.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.