Some may still be eager to attach an asterisk to Arsenal’s flying start to the season, citing their acquiescing schedule, but such an argument will be rendered well and truly moot after this weekend. On Saturday, the table-topping Gunners face what could well prove to be their most difficult fixture of the entire Premier League season when they meet Manchester City at the Etihad.
While Arsenal have undoubtedly been the most consistent team through the first 15 games of the campaign and are well deserving of their five-point advantage, it is City that have produced the most eye-catching one-off performances. City were outstanding in beating Newcastle United 4-0, Manchester United 4-1, Norwich 7-0, and Tottenham 6-0. All of those one-sided victories came on a home ground that is fast becoming the most daunting location to visit in England.
If they could have even come close to replicating those displays away from their home comforts then Manuel Pellegrini’s side would surely be at least level-pegging with Arsenal at the summit. There are just signs, though, that the qualified civil engineer has constructed a formula and mentality to succeed on the road too.
Since their fourth defeat of the season, all away from home, City have gone to West Brom and won, while getting a credible point at an impressive Southampton side last week. And on Tuesday, they stunned the European champions by coming from a two goals down to beat Bayern Munich. It was a result that was ultimately meaningless in the context of the group, but it could be instrumental in giving the players the belief that can and should be competing against the very best wherever home or away.
That mentality could well be taken into Saturday’s enticing encounter against the league leaders. City will also welcome back the spine of their team, who are so crucial to their performance levels. Vincent Kompany is an essential part of a defense that lacks cover, Yaya Toure is the driving force and his inconsistent performances are too often mirrored by his team, while Sergio Aguero is establishing himself as one of the world’s premier players. With all three rested and surely bridling with intensity, there is every reason to think that they will be on song.
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In contrast, Arsenal will arrive in Manchester with a day’s less rest and on the back of a less than celebratory night in Naples. While Arsenal secured their target of a place in the Champions League knockout phase, a 2-0 defeat to Napoli meant they surrendered top spot in their group after what was a meek display.
Certain players, in particular Olivier Giroud, appeared to be suffering the effects of a heavy workload with Arsenal unable to rotate as often as their rivals. Worryingly, it was after another tough away test in Europe that Arsenal suffered their only league defeat since the opening day of the season in a jaded performance at Old Trafford.
There is reason for optimism with Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere able to come in after little and no playing time in Italy, respectively. And one of Arsenal’s most impressive qualities this season has been their new-found ability to garner results with the most efficient use of their resources and when not at their best.
It will say much for Arsenal’s approach whether Wenger goes, as in midweek, with the double pivot of Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta in midfield or opts for Ramsey to add more attacking thrust from deep. Whoever is in that position could well have the responsibility of denying space for David Silva, who returned to action with a flourish against Bayern.
With Arsenal likely have to field the still raw Carl Jenkinson in place of the injured Bacary Sagna, it is a tough ask for them to keep a City side full of attacking options quiet. On home soil City are rightly favorites to get a victory that could really kick-start the title race.
Prediction: Manchester City 2-1 Arsenal