While Leicester City continue to bask in the glory of their remarkable Premier League title triumph, for the big clubs who they have surpassed in this most unlikely of seasons there is cause for plenty of harsh reflection. By any assessment, no matter what happens in the final two weeks of the season, Manchester City and Arsenal have desperately underachieved this campaign. Yet their meeting at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday presents an opportunity to help ensure that the disappointment does not become yet more severe.
For third-placed Arsenal, victory would ensure them a place in the Champions League group phase, while a defeat could see them going into their final game needing to beat Aston Villa to be certain of holding off the challenge of Manchester United or West Ham. For fourth-placed Manchester City, the situation is even more precarious. After a 4-2 defeat to Southampton last week, City must win on Sunday or they could be left going into their final match at Swansea with their fate out of their own hands.
Yet, even the victors are likely to greet the final whistle with a sigh of relief rather than jubilant celebrations. The achievement of Leicester, and to a lesser extent second-placed Tottenham, two clubs with vastly lower wage bills, only serve to highlight the failures of City and Arsenal.
The frustration is particularly palpable at the Emirates. While Arsenal are in prime position to finish as the best of the traditional big clubs and even still have a chance to finish above north London rivals Tottenham, it is hard to escape the thought that if they can’t win the title this season then how is the trophy ever going to be lifted again under Arsene Wenger.
The prospect of their chief rivals ever again failing to the degree they have this season is a far-fetched one. In the 12 years since Arsenal lost won the championship, Wenger has bemoaned the greater financial might of Manchester United, Chelsea and then Manchester City. But now, at a time when Arsenal can now compete with every club in the Premier League financially, they have let the title slip to a side that two years ago were in the Championship.
Wenger’s comments criticizing the discordant atmosphere at the Emirates for the last two matches will not have helped matters. They also fail to acknowledge the legitimate cause for complaint among supporters. Sure, Wenger’s record of qualifying for the Champions League for 17 successive seasons is a mark of tremendous consistency. But Arsenal supporters, paying the highest ticket prices in the Premier League, are entitled to ask for more, in this of all seasons. It is hard to escape the thought that if Arsenal make the Champions League once again, the same season that the club appears to be experiencing on repeat will be replicated once more next term.
For Manchester City, there is at least plenty of cause for optimism looking ahead to next season. The need is to simply ensure they attain their minimum target from this campaign. Pep Guardiola will arrive this summer, with this season and especially the past few days only serving to highlight why the club’s hierarchy were so set on initiating a change of coach.
Manuel Pellegrini will leave the Etihad having won a Premier League title and two League Cups, yet he has failed to make Manchester City a truly consistent, formidable team, either in England or in Europe. After what was a pitiful 4-2 defeat by Southampton, even accounting for eight changes to the starting lineup, City mounted the most insipid challenge in a Champions League semifinal in recent memory. Against a Real Madrid side that was playing far from their best, City failed to have even a single shot on target.
In truth it is difficult to know what the most depressing episode of Guardiola’s week will have been—seeing his current Bayern Munich side lose out in the semifinals, or witnessing his future City team going down in such limp fashion. It is clear that many of the players on show will not have futures under the Catalan next season. But most of all Guardiola will need to change the culture of the team, from one that gives the impression of being a collection of mercenary individuals to a committed, symphonized unit. First, though, he will be watching anxiously to discover if he will be taking charge of a Champions League or Europa League club next season.
Manchester City: David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta will remain sidelined, while captain Vincent Kompany is also set to be out after having to go off with a groin injury against Real Madrid.
Arsenal: Per Mertesacker is the only confirmed absentee, having been ruled out of the remaining two matches with a hamstring injury.
Prediction: When Arsenal won on their last visit to Manchester City, in January, 2015, it was seen by many, including Wenger, as a turning point; one that would be looked upon as the moment when Arsenal matured into a truly reliable, versatile force. Instead, it was just another in a long line of false dawns. Still, they have managed to go unbeaten against City in their last five meetings, including the 2014 Community Shield. Neither side, though, comes into this latest clash in the greatest of form or mood. With the atmosphere inside the stadium unlikely to be exactly jumping either, the action on the pitch could be similarly flat. An uninspiring draw that fails to truly serve either party could be on the cards.
Predicted score: Manchester City 1-1 Arsenal