It’s now or never for Arsenal as they face testing trip to in-form West Ham

Saturday’s visit to Upton Park is a do-or-die fixture for an Arsenal side clinging on to title ambitions.

There’s no question – it’s going to be a real test for the Gunners, the like of which they have scarcely faced at Upton Park for a generation.

It would not be unkind to say that West Ham have been distinctly average in the Premier League era – their teams packed full of mediocre players, delivering mediocre fare.

And, coming into the start of this season, I would have expected more of the same from the London side – with the top half of the table their only realistic finishing place – perhaps burnished with a decent cup run.

But, this season, something is very different.

What Slaven Bilic has brought to his team has defied all expectation. Much like Leicester, West Ham have shown that shrewd scouting, iron discipline, and a consistent tactical approach can get results in this league – and then some.

Going in to Saturday’s clash, the Hammers are unbeaten in 13 games at home, a run that has included seven wins and six draws. This season they have shown a steel and knack for goals that has been missing for years, they have conceded 37 so far, with 49 goals scored. Last season they conceded 47 and scored just 44, and the season before that they conceded 51 and scored just 40.

Their top scorer, Dimitri Payet has 12 to his name this term, and has proved something of a star buy. Certainly, on his day, the Frenchman is capable of moments of brilliance.

But it must also be remembered that, until the 2-0 defeat to the Hammers on the opening day of the season, Arsenal had enjoyed a run of nine straight Premier League victories over their London rivals.

So far this season, they have scored more goals than West Ham, and conceded fewer, and before August, you would have to go back to 2007 to find the last time the Hammers bettered Arsenal in the league, when they triumphed 1-0 at the Emirates.

This Arsenal side is in good form – coming into the match on the back of two very impressive league wins, featuring two clean sheets, and they have the added incentive of the league title.

Arsenal must win at the weekend to stand any chance to trimming Leicester’s 11-point cushion, any less and the dream is over for another season.

To that end, they have everything to gain but going for the throat. They cannot afford to be reckless – as they have done so often this year – but they can certainly commit to the attack with confidence.

I suspect Arsene will continue with the same XI that has seen him to two straight wins, although Petr Cech’s return from injury may result in David Ospina dropping to the bench.

Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini are both back from injury, but, for my money, won’t feature unless called from the bench.

Of West Ham, Arsene Wenger said: “They are a strong side and that’s the message they gave us on the first day of the season [when West Ham beat Arsenal 2-0 at Emirates Stadium].

“They surprised us with their quality, they have 50 points now and that’s not a coincidence. Overall I believe they’ve sacrificed the Europa League a little bit, surprisingly, but that has paid off for them in the Premier League. They have had a very strong season.

“The outstanding player is Payet because he has a remarkable efficiency and is remarkably creative with his assists as well.

“He’s a player who gave them that little bit of extra creativity and made them dangerous in the final third.

“We will pay special attention to him because he’s a typical left-sided player who liked to come inside. He’s not really a wide player, he’s a central midfielder basically. That’s where he always finishes up.”

All told, I can see it being a great game. A win for either side would prove a massive boost for their respective league ambitions – so expect a goal or two. The first goal is going to be crucial – let’s pray that it goes Arsenal’s way!

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