London: Arsene Wenger has warned Arsenal`s title rivals that his resurgent side are finally strong enough to end the club`s 12-year wait to win the Premier League.
Wenger`s team kick off the new campaign against West Ham on Sunday and the mood at the Emirates Stadium will be one of unbridled optimism in the aftermath of a pair of Wembley victories that are being hailed around north London as the foundations of a sustained title challenge.
After producing a swaggering FA Cup final demolition of Aston Villa at Wembley in May, the Gunners returned to the English national stadium last weekend to secure a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the Community Shield.
While the eye-catching Cup final performance showcased Arsenal`s array of attacking talent, it was the mature way his players defended the lead against the Premier League champions on Sunday that provided most encouragement to Wenger.
Despite finishing 12 points behind Chelsea in third place last term, Arsenal have the feel of a team on the rise and Wenger is so confident in his squad that the signing of Petr Cech, the veteran goalkeeper lured across London from Stamford Bridge, was his only major pre-season signing.
Asked on the eve of the new season if he feels Arsenal can win the title for the first time since 2004, the usually conservative Wenger cast caution to the wind as he said: "I believe yes, all going well, and us maintaining our game.
"That`s important as well -- that we develop what we do well and do not stand still.
"That means we develop our cohesion, our passing game. If we are capable to keep the cohesion and the solidarity we have at the moment through the 38 games, we have a good chance."Wenger did concede that Chelsea will start as the title favourites and the Frenchman highlighted the importance of making a strong start after spluttering early form left them out of the race well before Christmas last season.
"Chelsea won it by a margin last year so they are the favourites," he said. "After that let`s see how it goes. After 15 games you will know more about that.
"Last year after 12 games we were 15 points behind Chelsea, and in the next 26 we took 58 points and Chelsea 55, so that means we missed our start to the season because it was after the World Cup.
"So let`s start strong this season and I believe we have the needed ingredients."
Amid such positive vibes, the only immediate concern for Wenger is the fitness of England internationals Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck and the physical condition of Alexis Sanchez.
Chile forward Sanchez has recently returned to training after helping his country win the Copa America in the close-season and will miss the London derby against West Ham.
Wilshere suffered a hairline fracture to his left fibula earlier this month, but Wenger believes the midfielder could be back in action in four weeks, while former Manchester United striker Welbeck is still recovering from a knee injury.
Meanwhile, West Ham open their campaign looking to erase the embarrassment of their humbling Europa League qualifying exit at the hands of Romanian side Astra Giurgiu on Thursday.
Having replaced Sam Allardyce as manager ahead of West Ham`s final season at Upton Park before their move to the Olympic Stadium, Slaven Bilic decided not to prioritise the Europa League in a bid to guard against the fixture backlog that can sink teams into a relegation battle.
"I would like us to play good football, to win games," Bilic said when asked what would constitute a successful campaign.
"It`s easy to say now before the first game. Our aim is to be mid-table, to be as high as possible, we will give everything we can -- let`s say if we finish top 10 that is major success."