Arsenal will look to ensure that they will enter the World Cup break at the top of the Premier League table when they meet Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on Saturday.
The two sides endured contrasting fortunes in the EFL Cup in midweek, with the hosts overcoming Leeds United, while the Gunners went out at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion.
One final chance for Steve Davis to strut his stuff on the Molineux touchline will present itself against the league leaders, as the Wolves coach prepares to step aside for Julen Lopetegui after the World Cup, and his penultimate match in charge was a joyful affair.
After 85 goalless minutes against Leeds United, midfield man Boubacar Traore came up with a stellar strike from outside the box to send Wolves through to the fourth round courtesy of a 1-0 success, but their most recent game in the top flight ended in a painful 3-2 loss to Brighton with 10 men.
It will certainly come as a relief for Wolves fans to see goals flying in from other areas rather than just Ruben Neves‘s penalties or long-range stunners, but the hosts’ predicament in the table is still a highly precarious one, as they lie 19th in the rankings and three points adrift of safety.
Davis’s side could lift themselves above the dotted line if things go in their favour this weekend, and they can take some encouragement in the fact that both of their top-flight wins this season have come at Molineux, but they are now without victory in four straight Premier League games.
Conceding at least three goals in three of their last four Premier League home matches is hardly a reassuring statistic either, and Wolves will hope that Arsenal’s momentum has just been taken down a notch after a rare domestic defeat in midweek.
On an evening to forget for Arsenal debutant Karl Hein, the Estonia international made his first-team debut for the Gunners in Wednesday’s EFL Cup clash with Brighton, where his key contribution was to give away a penalty in a 3-1 home defeat.
After Eddie Nketiah gave Arsenal the lead against the run of play, Hein tripped Danny Welbeck in the area before the ex-Arsenal man converted from the spot, and Karou Mitoma and Tariq Lamptey sealed a memorable win for the Seagulls in the second half.
Going out of the EFL Cup early may be a blessing in disguise for Mikel Arteta, whose team selection certainly showed that he is a man with bigger fish to fry this season, and he witnessed his crop of first-teamers nullify Chelsea in a deserved 1-0 London Derby win last week – one which keeps them two clear of Manchester City at the summit.
There is always talk of the importance of being top of the league at Christmas, which will not carry as much weight this term given the imminent World Cup break, but entering the festive period as league leaders will no doubt be of major psychological benefit to the Gunners, even if they have not gone on to win the league in that scenario since 1948.
Arteta’s side have now won six and drawn one of their last seven Premier League games, and while the five points that they have dropped this season have come away from home, four goals conceded on the road is still the best defensive record of its kind in the division.
Not everyone took kindly to Arsenal’s celebrations when they won 1-0 at Molineux last term, but the pandemonium was in full swing when the Gunners claimed a late 2-1 triumph at the Emirates just two weeks later, and the visitors are aiming to score against Wolves for the 30th match in a row this weekend.
To the delight of Arsenal fans with painful memories of Diego Costa from his time at Chelsea, the striker will serve the third and final game of his suspension this weekend, but Nelson Semedo is back from a ban of his own after seeing red in the loss to Brighton – a timely return with Jonny Otto now a doubt after coming off with a hamstring strain on Wednesday.
The hosts’ injury list is still a lengthy one, with Sasa Kalajdzic, Chiquinho, Pedro Neto and Raul Jimenez all in the treatment room, but Matheus Nunes should be in with a strong chance of shaking off a shoulder problem in time to line up here. Tote Gomes was also back in midweek, although Max Kilman and Nathan Collins‘s spots are not in any real danger.
Davis will be spoiled for choice in midfield if Nunes is able to return, but Boubacar Traore will surely come back into the first XI either way, as Jose Sa prepares to return for Matija Sarkic in goal.
In contrast, Arsenal’s infirmary is empty barring the duo of Takehiro Tomiyasu and Emile Smith Rowe, the former of whom is still set to represent Japan at the World Cup despite his minor muscular problem.
Smith Rowe is not expected to return to training for another few weeks, but Arteta has settled on a first-choice XI and will revert to that intimidating lineup after making as many as 10 changes in midweek – only French World Cup team member William Saliba held his spot.
The likes of Gabriel Jesus, Martin Odegaard, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli will return to the attacking third, although Jesus and Saliba are walking a tightrope and will miss the Boxing Day clash with West Ham United if they are booked here.
Wolverhampton Wanderers possible starting lineup:
Sa; Semedo, Collins, Kilman, Bueno; Nunes, Neves, B. Traore; A. Traore, Guedes, Podence
Arsenal possible starting lineup:
Ramsdale; White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko; Xhaka, Partey; Saka, Odegaard, Martinelli; Jesus
Wolves will certainly be aware of the dangers of taking Arsenal’s midweek result at face value, with the Gunners’ second-string XI nowhere near as dominant as their first team has been this term, and a visiting side who quelled Chelsea with ease should have no issues returning to winning ways here.
The hosts are slowly but surely improving on the attacking front, but facing the league’s joint-best defence with a host of well-rested big names should only end one way, as Arteta’s side prepare to celebrate Christmas at the top of the league.
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