CAPTAIN Per Mertesacker insists Arsenal can mount a title challenge next season – if they make a strong start.

The Gunners are kicking themselves that they did not push Chelsea closer this season.

Arsene Wenger’s side have been the best team in the Premier League since the turn of the year but dropped too many points in the first half of the season.

Defender Mertesacker won the World Cup with Germany last summer but was part of an inconsistent team in the first part of the domestic campaign with his club.

He knows Arsenal must fly out of the traps in 2015-16 to give themselves a chance of a first championship since 2004.

The German said: “Post World Cup was not good enough, we have to admit that.

“How we finish season after season is fantastic but we have to be sharp from the start of the season. That is what we lack.

“The points we dropped at the start of the season were 10 or 11 points and that gap we could not close.

“We were consistent in 2015, but Chelsea did not drop many points.

"When we look at ourselves, we feel we have made progress."

Arsenal are unbeaten in 10 league matches and are hot favourites to finish as runners up for the first time in a decade.

The Gunners finished fourth in their last two seasons meaning they were forced to play a qualifier to reach the Champions League.

Mertesacker wants to seal automatic progress to the group stages and then cap the season victory in the FA Cup against Aston Villa on May 30.

The 30-year-old said: “We want to qualify directly for the Champions League.

“After the title is gone, that for us would be an improvement from last season where we had two qualifying matches, really tight ones, to secure Champions League football.

“That's the first target and then the FA Cup, to defend that title would be really amazing.

“That's the focus at the minute. It looks like we are quite sharp and the way we are going is really pleasing."

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