By James Goldman
Those who doubt Arsenal’s title credentials can point with some justification to the lack of a talismanic striker and the apparent inferiority complex from which they suffer when tasked with overturning one of the Premier League’s established powerhouses.
In truth, however, nothing was more likely to suck the momentum out of the Gunners' season than a devastating bulletin from the club's overworked and much-maligned medical department. On Tuesday night, amid the regret of two dropped points at Southampton, the news of Aaron Ramsey’s unfortunate setback represented one such, now almost customary, blow.
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As Arsenal enter the defining period of their season, however, they can ill-afford to do without the man who has done as much as anyone to ensure they are placed to challenge the considerable might of Manchester City and Chelsea. Indeed, much of what occurred at a rain-sodden St Mary's, where Arsenal delivered their least coherent performance since the tame surrender at Old Trafford in November, would attest to that.
The arrival of Mesut Ozil galvanised the club as a whole and the defensive partnership between Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker has provided a platform of dependability on which Arsene Wenger has been able to build, but it was Ramsey’s drive, energy and sheer exuberance that provided the impetus and spark to Arsenal’s early season form.
Goal understands the Welsh dynamo could be out for another six weeks by which time he will have missed the league and cup double-header against Liverpool, the Champions League showdown with Bayern Munich and the visit of Manchester United in the Premier League.
It is true that this is a versatile Arsenal squad, one jam-packed with multi-functional players, all capable of slotting into a side that has no definitive style of play. Indeed, the hallmark of this Arsenal side has become, simply, to find a way.
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Even before confirmation of Ramsey’s setback, the disjointed display against an admittedly talented and supremely well-drilled Southampton side, for whom Luke Shaw looks every inch a £20 million player worthy of holding a place in United or Chelsea's defence, was on the cards.
In truth, Arsenal haven't played at their optimum level since the FA Cup victory against Tottenham, who were punished for their naïve, gung-ho approach, at the beginning of the month, and their last routine victory in the league came at home against Hull City in December.
Recently Wenger’s side required two late strikes to overcome struggling Cardiff on New Year’s Day, were forced to come from behind away at West Ham and only just got over the line against Aston Villa and Newcastle thanks to heroic, energy-sapping rear-guard efforts.
This is not to say Arsenal’s title tilt has stalled, but they face the very real prospect of dropping from first to third should both City and Chelsea win on Wednesday night. Momentum will no longer be their ally unless Wenger dusts off his cheque book and delivers the signing that will excite and instil belief that one senses is ever so slowly beginning to ebb away.
Loan moves for Real Madrid youngster Alvaro Morata and Juventus’ wily but ageing Montenegro forward Mirko Vucinic appear to have been placed on the backburner but neither would quicken the pulse in a way that the addition of Schalke’s precocious Julian Draxler would. Wenger must rediscover his sense of adventure and daring - this is not a time for stop gaps and half measures.
To that end, in a week when Arsenal announced their coffers would be swelled to the tune of £130m following their record breaking kit deal with Puma, money, within reason, need not be a consideration or obstacle with regards to potential late additions.
"I hope we have something to tell you [on Friday]," said Wenger in relation to the possibility of making a positive announcement by the end of the week. In light of Ramsey’s injury, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Arsenal’s season depends on Friday being a positive news day.
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