at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
London – A dip in form by record signing Mesut Ozil has not derailed Arsenal's title challenge, with the Gunners' consistency and miserly defence bringing a 'serene attitude' to North London, according to manager Arsene Wenger.
Arsenal beat Fulham 2-0 on Saturday to make it five straight wins and preserve their one point advantage over big-spending title favourites Manchester City at the top of the English Premier League with 16 games to go.
Most pundits retain the belief that City will eventually surpass the Londoners but Wenger remains confident his side can beat the odds and win their first title since 2004.
“The consistency of the results of the team since January 2013 has strengthened that maturity, and the fact that we are defensively more stable gives us more of a serene attitude. That helps a lot,” Wenger was quoted as saying by British media on Monday.
Centrebacks Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have received much of the praise for Arsenal's 10 clean sheets in the league, with close season recruit Mathieu Flamini also being commended for adding steel and protection in midfield.
However, Wenger's other midfield recruit, Ozil, has not enjoyed the same praise of late.
The German, signed for £42 million in September, wasted an early chance against Fulham at The Emirates and was also guilty of giving the ball away while his control fell below the high standards he set earlier in the season.
Wenger, though, leapt to the German international's defence.
“Sometimes people expect him to make the difference alone,” the Frenchman told the club's website www.arsenal.com.
“Sometimes when it doesn't work you expect him to take the ball and put it in the net. He is more a passer than a finisher.
“(Goalscoring) is one of the things he can add to his game for sure. It doesn't need to be criticised, it needs to be encouraged.
“I think as well that the consistency of the quality of his passing slowly drains the opponent as he passes always the ball when you do not want him to do it. That slowly (allows) us to take over.
“He is 25, he can only get better. The best years are coming for him now.”
With Ozil struggling, only by his high standards, Spaniard Santi Cazorla stepped up with two second-half goals to seal victory for Arsenal.
Wenger, still in the transfer market for a striker, said sharing the goals around the team was a major positive as Cazorla became Arsenal's seventh goalscorer in six matches.
The diminutive playmaker, though, was quick to praise the importance of having defensive stability in the side and was bullish about keeping City and London rivals Chelsea, in third a further point behind the Manchester club, at bay.
“There were games last year where we'd go 2-0 up and we'd end up losing it or under pressure. For a title-winning team that cannot happen,” the former Malaga and Villarreal midfielder said.
“This season the team is much more solid, we're much better at closing out games. We need to continue this form because of Chelsea and Manchester City.
“Maybe at the start of the season nobody put us up as high as Manchester City or Chelsea, maybe because of the signings they made, but it's ultimately demonstrated on the pitch and right now Arsenal are above them.
“Our objective is to keep fighting with them. We're top because up until now we've been the best team.” – Reuters