Temperatures may have taken a tumble around London today, but Arsenal have a chance to turn up the heat on all their title rivals when they host Manchester City in a couple of hours’ time.
The big team news ahead of the match involves arguably each team’s best attacker. City are expected to welcome back Sergio Aguero to their starting line-up, with the Argentine reportedly scheduled to play for an hour as he eases his way back from a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, our very own south American dynamo, Alexis Sanchez, is of course also returning after a hamstring complaint. The Chilean’s expected to play some part in the game as a substitute but is unlikely to be ready to start the game.
Bar their captain Vincent Kompany, City look set to name what is probably their best XI, with the likes of Joe Hart, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne all available. In stark contrast, we’ll be without several key players, with Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Jack Wilshere, and Danny Welbeck all missing.
I’m highlighting the varying fitness fortunes of the two sides not as some kind of early excuse-making exercise, but because I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have a new-look engine room in Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini, which is still bedding in and we’re facing what I think is the best squad in the the league outside of London Colney. So if we win, the three points will be all the sweeter, but if we get beaten, a little perspective should be applied. Can you tell I’m nervous?
In terms of form, we’re unbeaten in our last four meetings with Manuel Pellegrini’s men, having won two and drawn two since that infamous 6-3 defeat at Etihad stadium two years ago. This fixture ended 2-2 last year, with Wilshere and Sanchez putting us 2-1 up after Aguero had given them the lead, only for us to concede a soft headed equaliser by Martin Demichelis with less than ten minutes remaining.
Speaking at his pre-match press conference last Thursday, Arsene Wenger discussed the importance of keeping our “good run” going, as well as what sort of game he expects this evening, saying:
It looks to be very tight. We have played 16 games and the top team is on 35 points, so it means that the Premier League could be decided at around 80 points. If you look at the results it looks as though the consistency will be the main priority in this league because every week you are surprised by the results. We have really established a good run so for us it’s important to continue that. It is a massive game [on Monday]. When we play at home you want to win because we are ambitious and we feel we have the chance to come out in a strong position after Christmas. It will be a very tight game because if you look at the numbers since the start of the season, offensively and defensively the numbers are very close. Manchester City has huge individual potential with David Silva and Sergio Aguero coming back and so we will need a top, top-level team performance.
And talking to Arsenal Player, Arsene built up the game as a “significant moment” in Arsenal’s season and suggested his side would be well-prepared going into the game, having had over a week to train and fine-tune tactics since our win at Aston Villa:
It is a significant moment. It is a big game that you play at home. We have beaten them last season and it’s an opportunity that you want to catch. Over this Christmas period, we play three times at home, so it’s very important that our home strength comes out over this period. The [eight-day] break was welcome because it gave us a little opportunity to have a recovery period first and then prepare precisely for the game on Monday. I would say we’ve had enough time to prepare well for the game. We had a very demanding week last week, with two away games that were tricky. Olympiacos was a long trip and Aston Villa were physical as well. We needed to rest first. The team performance has to be spot-on [against City]. Tactically, you have to be right. Overall, you have to find a good balance between defending and attacking. The collective process has absolutely got to be right. You have individual quality on both sides as well. They can make the difference and on the day they need to have their special day to make the difference for you.
As I mentioned yesterday, a draw or a defeat this evening is in no way defining for our title hopes, yet just as a win over City in January this calendar year seemed to springboard us into winning consistency over the proceeding 11 months, let’s hope a win for Arsenal this evening will be a similar watershed moment, and we kick on and finally end our long wait for the Premier League crown.
See you on Tuesday.