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 By John Cross

Arsenal need to hit the ground running

Arsenal cruised to a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at home last season, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scoring both goals.

There is good reason Arsenal looked ahead of Manchester City in terms Premier League preparation when Arsene Wenger's men won 3-0 at Wembley last week.

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Arsene Wenger knows they have to hit the ground running because of the Champions League play-off with Besiktas, with the first leg in Istanbul next Tuesday. That is a huge game for Arsenal, a must-win for their season and cannot be taken for granted just because they have a habit of winning these play-offs in recent seasons.

As Wenger puts so much importance on the Champions League, it should mean they are in good shape for their season opener against Crystal Palace on Saturday.

He has to ensure -- and it certainly looked that way at Wembley on Sunday -- that Arsenal make a quick start. They must be in good shape and perhaps even be further down the line than many of their Premier League rivals.

It didn't help last year when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, which seemed like the end of the world -- even though they went on to beat Fenerbahce in the Champions League qualifier. But from that opening day defeat to Villa, Arsenal went on an impressive run which took them to the top of the Premier League.

That, in my view, was a result of them being farther down the road in terms of preparation than many other clubs. Wenger had to ensure his players were ahead of the game and up for the European play-off which is the target this year as well.

It should help offset the fitness doubts surrounding World Cup winners Per Mertesacker, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski, who only returned to training this week and are a long way from being fully match fit.

But it does throw up a few obvious shortages in key areas, as Wenger may be forced to use Calum Chambers alongside Laurent Koscielny in central defence. Mertesacker is clearly first choice partner with Koscielny in central defence, and Chambers is a fine prospect for the future. But Arsenal, despite all the exciting transfer business done this summer, still need another centre half because it would be dangerous to try and just make do with Nacho Monreal filling in.

I don't think you can win the title just by filling in and hoping that players don't get injured. Arsenal should have signed a midfield anchor man to play the holding role.


As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

But they do at least have a wealth of midfielders, and it will be difficult to keep all of them happy. Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Ozil, Santi Cazorla and the rest will give Arsenal plenty of options.

However, they look a bit light in defence, and for all of the early optimism, they may come unstuck in that department. Palace will be a major early test, especially with Tony Pulis in charge, because he has them well-organised and strong in attack. That could put a makeshift defence under pressure on the opening day.

Arsenal will be desperate to make a strong start as last year's defeat to Villa will be a reminder that the mood can quickly change. The summer has given Arsenal plenty of optimism. Alexis Sanchez is an exciting signing, a real game changer with pace, power and goals who can play wide or through the middle.

Mathieu Debuchy has replaced Bacary Sagna which might be an upgrade; it certainly is in the eyes of France boss Didier Deschamps who picks Debuchy ahead of Sagna. Chambers is versatile, David Ospina is great back-up for Wojciech Szczesny and Arsenal look stronger all round.

If they get off to a flier this season -- and they have a chance to do just that -- then they can ride the wave of optimism and hope to lift them to another title challenge.


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