Mertesacker 'relaxed' - But Arsenal's next three games could define their season

A decisive European clash against Napoli is followed by a visit to the Etihad Stadium, before Arsenal take on Chelsea at the Emirates.

It is crunch time for Arsene Wenger.

Arsenal's start to the season has defied all expectations. Gone are the worries over Wenger's future after their opening-day defeat to Aston Villa. Gone are the fears that the Gunners can no longer challenge for trophies.

Even after dropping points at home to Everton, Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the Premier League table and have already been at the summit longer than the Invincibles were during the 2003/04 season.

In the Champions League, too, Wenger's side sit top of Group F, having won four of their five games so far. If they avoid a three-goal defeat to Napoli on Wednesday, they will progress to the knockout stages of the competition for the 11th year in a row.

Battle lines have been drawn.

But still a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the Emirates Stadium. Arsenal supporters do not need reminding that their last major trophy came in 2005 - and that fact will make every major step towards glory all the more difficult.

In the weeks ahead, the Gunners face their most difficult period of the season. Three games, in particular, may define their campaign.

"We have tough games coming up over the next week and over the Christmas period," defender Per Mertesacker told Arsenal's official website. "We just want to go one game at a time.

"We are really relaxed, we don't have to respond to anyone. We just have to do our job every single second of the game. That is our target, nothing else."

The first is the aforementioned clash against Rafa Benitez's Napoli side. True, the Italians have won just once in their last five games and need a huge win to knock Arsenal out of the competition.

But the Gunners' mentality and form will be tested. After all, Benitez is no stranger to three-goal comebacks in Europe.

Three days later, it gets even tougher, as Wenger's men travel to the Etihad Stadium, where Manchester City hold a 100% league record this season.

Many critics are citing City as Arsenal's main challengers for the league title this year and a result against Manuel Pellegrini's men would stand the Gunners in good stead for the rest of the campaign. Defeat, however, could dent confidence ahead of their next key clash nine days later: against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea.

Third in the table and just five points off Arsenal, the Blues have not clicked into gear yet this term. But Wenger has never beaten Mourinho, making the task at hand a daunting one.

As Mertesacker puts it, then, the Gunners will need to be at their most "relaxed." Fail to win in their next three fixtures and the north London club could be permanently scarred.

But if Wenger's side hold together and show they really mean business this December, Arsenal fans can really dare to dream.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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