Premier League leaders Arsenal face West Ham as EPL resumes

LONDON (AP) — Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta faces a challenge that dwarfs the achievement of the club’s surge to the top of the Premier League table in the pre-World Cup portion of the campaign: How to keep the improbable run going?

The Gunners are hoping to pick up their league season where they left off six weeks ago when they welcome West Ham in the late Boxing Day fixture that will conclude a program of seven matches on Monday.

Arsenal were the best team in the Premier League during the first half of the season and hold a five-point advantage over Manchester City but their task will be made that much harder without talisman Gabriel Jesus, who is recovering from a knee injury he picked up in Qatar while playing for Brazil.

In contrast, West Ham, who are 16th, have only just managed to stay out of the relegation zone after a slow start that included four wins from the team’s opening 15 matches, but Arteta is not taking the Hammers lightly.

“We need to do that (build momentum) on the pitch. We have talked a lot about it. We know the importance of starting strong and we play at home,” Arteta said. “It’s a very special day in Premier League history, it’s a very special family day to play football, it’s an incredible atmosphere that day and we want to make the most of it.“

He also made a point of praising his young side’s consistency during the opening 14 matches of the season, a stretch that includes victories over rivals Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. However, sterner tests lay ahead.

“Probably the level that we showed and the consistency we showed within that level, which with the group and the age we have is not easy,” Arteta said. “We showed real maturity in certain moments, especially against big opponents.

“The focus is to play better every single day, to keep growing individually, collectively and to keep deserving to win matches. That is all we can hope because football is a very tricky game.“

While Arsenal do not resume their Europa League campaign until March, the FA Cup will begin in January and Arteta knows rotation will be key, especially after a number of his squad were involved at the World Cup in Qatar.

The Gunners are set to play six matches over the next 28 days and have a similarly busy schedule in February.

“There are going to be periods where you have time to train and other periods where matches are going to come fast and you have big congested periods,” Arteta said. “It will be very important how healthy the team is, how fit it is and how much rotation can help us to sustain the level we want.“

In the day’s first game, Tottenham travel across London to face Brentford at lunchtime with Spurs manager Antonio Conte adamant that the restart of league play is coming too soon after the World Cup final.

The Premier League resumes just eight days after Spurs duo Hugo Lloris and Cristian Romero battled it out in Qatar for the World Cup.

While Conte has already confirmed the World Cup finalists will not play on Monday, the Italian has a decision to make over Croatia’s Ivan Perisic as well as England pair Harry Kane and Eric Dier after the trio all made the last eight.

“It is a strange situation and honestly to play so quickly – only one week after the World Cup – I am not really happy,” he said. “In one hand, you are happy because for my club, Tottenham, to have 12 players at the World Cup it means that we are in the right way to try to be competitive and to try in the future to win something.

“But it is normal that when you have so many players play a tournament like this, especially during the season, that now it is not easy because the physical condition is not at the top.“

In the day’s other games, Crystal Palace hosts Fulham in another London derby, Everton welcomes Wolves, Newcastle visits Leicester, Brighton travels to south coast rival Southampton and Liverpool heads to Aston Villa.

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