What could well turn out to be one of the defining matches of the Premier League season awaits at the Emirates Stadium next Monday. Just a single point separates second-placed Arsenal from third-placed Manchester City in the standings, and, while neither side is top, they are the two undoubted title favorites.
The unpredictable nature of the season so far is symbolized by Leicester City sitting two points clear at the top of the table. Yet, although Claudio Ranieri’s side have deservedly been the story of the season so far, it would be a far more astonishing achievement were they to maintain their momentum to the end of the campaign. Behind Arsenal, Manchester United are foundering and Chelsea are in disarray. There is no getting away from the fact that this season represents a huge opportunity for Arsenal and City to claim the championship.
For Arsenal, the potential scoop the title should ring particularly loudly. It has been 12 years since Arsene Wenger last led the club to the Premier League crown, and they have since been seemingly lulled into an acceptance that a place in the top four represents the limit of their achievements. Even a top-two berth has eluded them since 2005.
This season, though, there would be little excuse for failing to take home the biggest prize. The need for extreme financial prudence has long since gone, with Arsenal now one of the richest clubs in the world and able to buy world-class talent like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. Given the unprecedented collapse of Chelsea and the downcast mood at Old Trafford, they may never have a better chance under Wenger to end their title drought.
With that in mind, there are two ways to look at Arsenal’s season so far. On the plus side, they are well in the title race, despite a recent glut of injuries. But it could also easily be said that, with the failures elsewhere, Arsenal have failed to seize the opening to really take the title race by the scruff of its neck and build a significant advantage. Dropping five points against West Brom and Norwich City in the past month are the sort of results that can prove hugely costly.
But all the criticisms that can be leveled at Arsenal certainly hold true for Manchester City, too. After winning their first five matches of the season without conceding a goal, many expected Manuel Pellegrini’s team to run away with the championship. They had had emphatically demonstrated that they had the talent to do so.
Yet what they have shown since is that, despite the huge sums that have been invested in the team and claiming two Premier League title wins in the last four seasons, they lack the steel that the great championship-winning teams have possessed. For a team of City’s quality, to have lost two matches already this season by a 4-1 scoreline is unacceptable. And a limp 2-0 defeat at Stoke City earlier this month, which could have been far more emphatic, represented another low.
Although they spent £100 million on Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling in the summer, City remain heavily reliant on their long-serving quartet of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Agüero. It is not just that they miss the footballing ability of those stars when they are missing, but the leadership, particularly of Kompany. There is a sense, too, that, not helped by the uncertainty over his future, Pellegrini is struggling to keep his players on their toes week-in, week-out.
Still, not only do they have the strongest squad in the Premier League, which could be vital as the season wears on, but when they are on song they look the most devastating team in England. They have swept aside Newcastle United 6-1 and Bournemouth and Crystal Palace 5-1 this season, and could still make this title their own.
Prediction: Manchester City have not been great on the road this season, and have lost their last three away matches in all competitions. Yet some of the lethargy that can creep into City’s performances at times should be eradicated for what is a match of huge importance. Much, though, could depend on whether Pellegrini has Agüero and Kompany available. Similarly, Arsenal will be hoping that Sánchez has enough time to regain fitness after his hamstring injury. Although Wenger has shown more tactical flexibility to make his side more adept going up against better opposition in recent times, Arsenal may have to settle for a point.
Predicted score: Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City