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League race makes Anfield pit stop

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Patrick Barclay

Patrick Barclay is one of England's most experienced soccer writers. He has covered the game for every broadsheet newspaper and attended eight World Cups. Barclay is the author of biographies of Jose Mourinho (Further Anatomy of a Winner) and Sir Alex Ferguson (Football - Bloody Hell!) You can follow him on Twitter @paddybarclay.

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They are on top of the Premier League -- and have held that status for much of a season now approaching the two-thirds stage -- so why does nobody fancy Arsenal for the league title?

It's a question increasingly asked and the most frequent answer is that we've forgotten what an Arsene Wenger team looks like when they are celebrating. Last time Arsenal sprayed the champagne, it was so long ago that the FA Cup final was played in Cardiff (Wembley was being rebuilt).

Wenger's men rather luckily overcame Manchester United that day -- it was in the spring of 2005 -- and ever since they have merely flirted with trophies. They even lost to a relegation-bound Birmingham City in the League Cup final of 2011. And, as far as the Premier League is concerned, Wenger has taken to arguing that second, third or fourth place -- because they get you into the Champions League -- are better than silverware.

Ask David Moyes at Old Trafford, whose chances of seeing action in Europe's top competition next season are slim, and he might temporarily agree. But the Arsenal support developed greater expectations during the glory years that followed Wenger's arrival in 1996 and might be said to have peaked with the Invincibles -- the side that went through a whole Premier season unbeaten in 2003-04.

Such was the grumbling that cascaded down the handsome slopes of the Emirates this time last year that many feared it might be Wenger's last season. And dissent intensified when this season began with a defeat at home to Aston Villa. But it has proved no more than a false start.

Things started falling into place when Wenger, perhaps sensing the need for a bold gesture, invested $65 million in the midfield mastery of Mesut Ozil, who had surprisingly become surplus to requirements at Real Madrid. Coincidentally or not, confidence surged through the rest of the squad.

Aaron Ramsey, once a leading target for the fans' disgruntlement, emerged as the most dynamic of goal-scoring midfielders -- an early candidate for English soccer's MVP awards. Alongside him Mathieu Flamini, retrieved from AC Milan, fiercely protected a back four notable for the growing assurance of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny as a central partnership.

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Even young goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, having hitherto appeared not to have fully recovered from being red-carded at the start of Euro 2012 in his native Poland, started to fulfil his rich promise. Striker Olivier Giroud led the line and found the net. Everything fell into place. It looked as if Wenger's alchemy was working like it used to in the glittering era.

Except when Arsenal visited Manchester. They lost there twice and, while going to United is not as tough as it used to be, these games against the champions of the past two seasons did rather tend to confirm the view that Wenger's men could cope better with routine fixtures than the big ones.

That the big ones mean so much was emphasized only a few days ago by Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, when they went to City and triumphed on a ground where Arsenal -- however entertainingly -- had lost 6-3. Chelsea are now only two points behind Arsenal as the leaders prepare for another big one, a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool.

It's a place that has happy memories for Arsenal fans, for in 1989 they went there for the final game of the season and George Graham's team snatched the title from their hosts in amazing circumstances, Michael Thomas hitting the decisive goal in the fourth minute of overtime.

So much for the past. The present will be shaped by games like the upcoming test. When Wenger's side met Brendan Rodgers's at the Emirates, Arsenal came out on top. They seemed to have targeted that game and put a lot into it. And Liverpool will probably feel the same now. They are desperate to get back into the Champions League and, having rather spoiled the effect of a derby crushing of Everton by dropping points at West Bromwich, can be expected to work feverishly.

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An attack led by Luis Suarez, whom Arsenal made a ham-fisted attempt to buy last summer, should give Mertesacker and Koscielny a rigorous examination. If Arsenal fail, those who insist the likes of Chelsea and City are better equipped to last the course will claim vindication and Wenger knows it. "We have fought very hard to be in this position," he said, "so let's enjoy it and give our best."

Reflecting on Chelsea's achievement in spoiling City's 100 percent home record, the Invincibles' creator added: "There is no invincible team because there are so many quality teams in the Premier League." It's true. With 14 games left, it seems nothing can prevent this from being hailed as the best season since the Premier League split from the Football League in 1992. And it's still looking like the most exciting title race.

Maybe Arsenal's misfortune is to have raised their game at a time when others -- notably City, Chelsea and Liverpool -- have also done so. Maybe this will be the epitaph of this Arsenal campaign. Four days after Liverpool, they take on a United team excited by the acquisition of Juan Mata. City visit the Emirates in late March. On such contests rest Arsenal's hopes of confounding the skeptics.

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