London – Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes that his side's five-point lead at the top of the Premier League table means that it is impossible to ignore their credentials as title contenders.
British media pundits have predicted that Wenger's men will fail to go the distance this season and the Frenchman himself is usually circumspect about his team's targets.
Sunday's 1-1 draw with Everton at the Emirates Stadium left the north London club five points clear of nearest rivals Liverpool and Chelsea, but they face a challenging run of fixtures.
After visiting Napoli in the Champions League on Wednesday, they go to fourth-place Manchester City in the league next weekend and then host Chelsea on December 23.
It is a sequence of matches that threatens to expose any limitations that Arsenal may have, but Wenger says that his players should draw encouragement from their performances to date.
Asked if his side should now be considered serious title contenders, he replied: “It depends what you call serious.
“As long as we are five points ahead, you cannot rule us out, even with the best desire.
“It shows you that it will be a tough Premier League and the consistency in the end will be rewarded. The consistency is of course down to us, to keep this attitude until the end of the season.”
Arsenal were on course to move seven points clear when Mesut Ozil put them ahead in the 80th minute, only for Everton substitute Gerard Deulofeu to give his side a share of the spoils four minutes later.
Wenger conceded that Everton deserved “credit” for their reaction, but he felt that Roberto Martinez's side were fortunate to escape censure for some robust challenges.
“I believe the problem is that they put a very good pressure on us when we got the ball back to stop our flow,” he said.
“I just felt that when we got out of the pressure and got into the passing, they stopped us every time with a foul.
“The disadvantage of putting the pressure so high is that if you're not winning the ball back, you can be outnumbered after that, and to be just making a foul without being punished by the referee is a huge advantage, because after that you play 10 against 10 in one half again.”
After impressing in Everton's recent 4-0 win over Stoke City, Deulofeu gave another illustration of his talent with the equaliser, slipping away from Kieran Gibbs and rifling home from a narrow angle.
The 19-year-old forward is on a season-long loan from Barcelona
and Martinez revealed that the deal could be extended for a further season.
“There is an opportunity. We've got an agreement that it could be extended an extra year, as long as the parent club don't need the player,” said the Everton manager.
Having seen his side win 1-0 at Manchester United in mid-week, Martinez feels that Everton have now lost their “mental block” about playing against the country's biggest sides.
He also reserved praise for 20-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley, who produced an assured performance in the number 10 role, but sought to ease the pressure on a player who is considered a potential World Cup star for England.
“I've never seen an England player with that sort of mentality and I've had the privilege to work with many youngsters,” he said.
“I've seen Ross Barkley, at times I see bits of (Michael) Ballack, at times I see bits of Gazza (Paul Gascoigne).
“Technically he's someone that you could compare against any other nation in terms of the young Brazilians or Dutch or even Spanish players.
“As a country, we need to be a little bit more protective of our youngsters, because we're talking about someone that, if we look after him properly, he could give us something unique into the English game.” – Sapa-AFP