• Gunners hope to take 2013 form into next year
• Arsenal squad are 'hungry and ready for it'
Arsène Wenger is not immune to the consensus. "Everyone expects us to fail," the Arsenal manager said, with a smile. The calendar year of 2013 offered compelling evidence as to why the club could yet win the Premier League title for the first time since 2004 but there remains a nagging doubt.
It seems as though everybody feels it and Arsenal's achievements over the first half of the season, least of all entering the New Year on top of the table, have not managed to convince the pundits that they will do anything other than implode at some point over the next four and a bit months.
The sentiment will not keep Wenger awake at night; he suggested that it might take some of the pressure off his club. But he did challenge it, before the New Year's Day visit of Cardiff City, because he believes there are many reasons why Arsenal's story can be different this time.
In 2008, the previous occasion they topped the league on the morning of New Year's Day, the club would run aground after a traumatic day at Birmingham City in late February, when Eduardo da Silva suffered a terrible leg break, the team conceded a late equaliser and William Gallas threw his infamous strop.
But Wenger feels his current squad is tougher mentally, blessed with greater quality in depth and ready to take the momentum of 2013 into the decisive months of the season. No Premier League team could better Arsenal's return of 82 points from 38 games during the calendar year and their excellent away form was a particular source of encouragement.
"It's not a trophy but it shows the consistency and the trend for the team," Wenger said. "It means we are going upwards and we want to transfer that into 2014, to be concrete and to have a great race in the Premier League title. We have been consistent and that makes the belief stronger. These players have a classy attitude, they are hungry, they want it and are ready to go for it.
"This squad is more experienced. In 2008, we lost it at Birmingham, especially, where we were a bit unlucky and self-destructive as well. But, overall, we are better equipped on the mental front."
Wenger admitted that the team had endured a blip with the league draws against Everton and Chelsea, bookending the defeats at Napoli in the Champions League and Manchester City, but the subsequent wins at West Ham United and Newcastle United showed the ability and character. Wenger also noted how he had changed three midfielders from Upton Park to St James' Park and still looked strong while he took further heart from the positive manner in which his team had finished the last two seasons.
"We lost big players during the summers, we had to rebuild and we found our run after Christmas," Wenger said. "What we suffered from, which was the most important, was we looked a team with less ambition than the others. We were in a position where we sold our good players; we accepted to be behind the teams who invested a lot of money. That has changed and that has strengthened, as well, the belief."
Wenger's injury worries increased after the Newcastle game, with Kieran Gibbs and Olivier Giroud succumbing to calf and ankle problems. The manager also reported that Jack Wilshere (ankle), Theo Walcott (shoulder) and Tomas Rosicky (calf), along with Thomas Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal (both illness), are doubts for Cardiff but all five have been named in the squad. Giroud's injury is not serious, although he is unlikely to be back for Saturday's FA Cup tie at home to Tottenham Hotspur, meaning that Lukas Podolski stands to enjoy an opportunity at centre-forward. Wenger said that he was "on alert" for a new striker in January.
"Maybe we are a bit shorter up front with specialised people ... we have only two because [Yaya] Sanogo is not ready yet," Wenger said. "If that special opportunity turns up, we will not turn it down but everywhere else, we are in no need at all [to buy]."
Wenger said he would "push very hard" to ensure that Bacary Sagna signed a new contract and he added that the club and defender were "not far" from an agreement. But he could offer no guarantees, with Sagna, whose current deal expires in the summer, now free to sign a pre-contract at an overseas club.
"We cannot stop him from doing that," Wenger said. "For me, that is not a problem because when you are a professional football player, you do your best until the last day, of where you are. I don't question Sagna's commitment until the last day of his contract."