Arsenal v Newcastle Utd  Saturday 2nd KO 3:00pm

Halfway through the Premier League season and it is Arsenal who lead the way on goal difference going into 2016.

The Gunners, who are slight favourites over third-placed Manchester City to end their 12-year wait for the title, welcome struggling Newcastle United to the Emirates in their first match of the New Year on Saturday.

Arsenal

Arsene Wenger's men bounced back from the shock 4-0 defeat at Southampton on Boxing Day by seeing off Bournemouth 2-0 on Monday to move top of the table 19 games into the campaign.

Leicester City could have reclaimed top spot a day later, but the Foxes and City played out a goalless draw to leave Arsenal top on goal difference and three clear of their main challengers City.

The Gunners' victory three days ago was Bournemouth's first defeat in seven and largely down to Mesut Ozil, who continued his impressive form with a goal and an assist.

The German, whom Wenger has likened to Gunners great Dennis Bergkamp, now has 16 assists this season, meaning that he is only four shy of breaking the Premier League record for a season set by another club legend in Thierry Henry.

Olivier Giroud set up Ozil's goal on Monday with a first-time flick, and although the Frenchman did not find the net against the Cherries, he will be confident of doing so against Newcastle.

He has scored eight goals in seven Premier League games against the Magpies. In fact, Giroud has managed five headers on target against Newcastle in the Premier League and scored with all of them.

At the other end of the field, Petr Cech's clean sheet against Bournemouth means that he now has a record 170 in the Premier League, one more than the previous mark of David James.

Overall in 2015, Arsenal won the most points (81) and matches (25) in the Premier League. They have lost just once in their last eight matches and picked up wins in six of those games.

Recent Premier League form: DWWWLW

Recent form (all competitions): WWWWLW

Newcastle

The Magpies go into the second half of the season as one of the three teams in the relegation zone, having managed only 17 points in 19 games under Steve McClaren this term.

Although they are nine better off than rockbottom Aston Villa and five ahead of North-East rivals Sunderland,

Newcastle will know that they are in a battle to stay up this season with sides above them seemingly finding their feet in recent weeks.

Swansea City, two points above them, have kept three straight clean sheets, while defending champions Chelsea, on 20 points, are still expected to claw their way towards the top half.

The Blues are one of three teams three points above Newcastle, and Norwich City and Bournemouth seem to be more catchable teams for the Magpies, although the newly-promoted duo have lost just once in four and seven matches respectively.

McClaren's men escaped the drop zone earlier this month with impressive back-to-back wins over Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, but they have dropped back in with just one point out of a possible nine against Aston Villa, Everton and West Bromwich Albion.

They have lost the last two 1-0, on Saturday going down at The Hawthorns to a Darren Fletcher goal that Premier League debutant Karl Darlow let through his grasp.

An escape from the bottom three in the next few weeks might be out of Newcastle's reach, with the club's next five league games all against sides currently in the top half (Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham United, Watford, Everton).

Recent form: LWWDLL

Team News  

Wenger rested some of his usual starters against Bournemouth and it will be interesting to see if Gabriel Paulista keeps his place in central defence ahead of Laurent Koscielny after breaking the deadlock against the Cherries with his first Arsenal goal.

Elsewhere, Nacho Monreal and Joel Campbell could return, while Mathieu Flamini is also fighting to be fit in time. Star forward Alexis Sanchez is close to full fitness, but will not be risked on Saturday.

Newcastle, meanwhile, have the biggest injury list in the league and lost another player on Monday when Vurnon Anita limped off against the Baggies.

The Dutch midfielder has been ruled out of Saturday's match with a hamstring complaint, so Cheick Tiote is likely to start a Premier League game for only the sixth time this season.

McClaren threw his weight behind Darlow after the keeper's gaffe, but he may drop the former Nottingham Forest man if Rob Elliot overcomes a stomach bug.

31/12/15

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