Keown: Singapore swing key to Gunners' EPL title hopes

Former Arsenal defender and Premier League ambassador Martin Keown talks to FFT's James Dampney about the upcoming Barclays Asia Trophy and how it'll affect the three English teams participating this year...

Arsenal great Martin Keown believes this month’s Barclays Asia Trophy in Singapore will be a critical step in the Gunners’ hopes of landing a first Premier League title in more than a decade.

The Gunners won the last of their 13 English crowns back in 2003-04 – the glorious, undefeated outfit that became known as ‘The Invincibles’.

They would finish second the following season, 12 points behind Chelsea, while a third-placed result in 2007-08 – just four points behind champions Manchester United – was the closest they’ve come in the years since.

A good start for Arsenal is imperative and that’s why the Barclays Asia Trophy is vital

Arsene Wenger’s troops will ramp up preparations for the new season in a four-team tournament at the Singapore Sports Hub later this month, also featuring Everton, Stoke and a Singapore Select XI.

Defender Keown, who made over 300 appearances in two stints in Arsenal red and white, feels a strong showing is crucial to their title chances.

“Arsenal started last season very poorly,” Keown said in a phone interview with FourFourTwo. “After eight games I think they were 11 points behind Chelsea and that’s pretty well how it finished at the end of the season.

“A good start for Arsenal is imperative and that’s why the Barclays Asia Trophy is vital. Arsene Wenger has to get this pre-season right. They can’t afford to lose these games, even in the pre-season.”

Martin Keown made more than 300 appearances for Arsenal in two different stints with the club

Premier League foes Everton and Stoke will kick-off the Barclays Asia Trophy on July 15. Arsenal will then be the headline act later that night when they take on the host selection.

The winning teams will meet in the final on July 18, immediately after the play-off for third place.

It’s not unusual for players to be a little short of full fitness at this time of year, having taken a well-deserved break from the end of last season and gradually working their way back into top shape.

I expect lots of players to get some involvement in these matches and expect them all to be looking very sharp

Yet Keown believes competition for places in the Arsenal line-up ahead of the season-opening visit of West Ham in just over five weeks’ time will ensure the Gunners are ready to perform in Singapore.

“If you want to be in the starting XI, you have to be in a winning team in the pre-season. They’re the rules that Arsene Wenger creates,” said Keown, who spent nine seasons under the Frenchman’s guidance.

“I expect lots of players to get some involvement in these matches and expect them all to be looking very sharp.”

A year after finishing fifth and qualifying for the Europa League, Everton ended last season down in 11th place, seemingly taking a step back in manager Roberto Martinez’s second season in charge.

Keown was surprised by the Toffees’ struggles and felt some of their fans were losing faith in the manager until Martinez led them well away from a possible relegation battle in the closing weeks of the campaign.

He is confident, however, that the Spaniard will make the right moves to ensure the blue half of Merseyside is far more competitive in 2015-16.

Roberto Martinez is entering his third season as Everton manager

Another team Keown has few concerns about are the Potters. Following their promotion to the Premier League ahead of the 2008-09 season, Stoke finished between 11th and 14th in five impressively stable years.

The thinking here in England is that Arsenal are getting very close to being the real deal to win a Premier League

They then built upon that platform with consecutive ninth-place results and will head into the Barclays Asia Trophy still being lauded for a remarkable 6-1 dismantling of Liverpool on the final day of last season.

“They’ve got a nucleus of players that have been there a while now,” Keown said. “And (manager) Mark Hughes seems to be able to bring the best out of them.

“I have no fears whatsoever for them next season.”

The Singaporean selection will be a mixture of national team players and S.League standouts, alongside four imported players, including Argentinian striker Nicolas Velez and promising Frenchman Sirina Camara.

While Keown says the tournament will benefit the Singapore selection enormously, most will be predicting the winner to come from one of the star-studded Premier League outfits.

A two-time World Cup combatant for England, Keown is anticipating a fierce battle for this year’s Barclays Asia Trophy.

“I’m expecting it to be very, very competitive,” he said. “The thinking here in England is that Arsenal are getting very close to being the real deal to win a Premier League.

“Petr Cech coming in from Chelsea this week is a really good signing.

“Stoke will be very well prepared under Mark Hughes. Then Everton were a disappointment last year and will be very keen to bounce back.

“It’s going to be a very good gauge to see where the teams are at in terms of fitness, how technically advanced they are and their overall sharpness.”

Tickets for the Barclays Asia Trophy are now on sale. They can be purchased at www.sportshubtix.sg, by calling the Sports Hub Tix booking hotline on (+65) 3158 7888, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on at any Singpost outlet.