Arsenal’s woeful recent record at the Premier League’s big teams will again be put under the microscope when Arsene Wenger’s men visit champions Manchester City on Sunday. Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge was derailed spectacularly last season by heavy away defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool. While more competitive, they were also on the end of 6-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium. There has been little sign of those issues being overcome so far this campaign, with Arsenal well beaten at Chelsea and, in the Champions League, at Borussia Dortmund. Yet Wenger is confident that Arsenal can begin to reverse their record on Sunday.
“History is history, we are here to change history,” he said during his pre-match press conference. “Last year we did not win the championship for only that reason. We did not perform in the top games away from home. I believe we have the potential now to be much more stable and to show that we can do it.
“You have many games where you know you will be judged about your potential. Man City is of course one of them. You have always Man United, Chelsea, Liverpool. These are the games that people have a close eye on to judge your potential.”
While the meeting at the Etihad last December was then a battle between two serious title contenders, it is this time only City that have realistic ambitions of holding the trophy aloft come May. The consistency Arsenal had in knocking off weaker teams last season has also dissipated, leaving them in fifth place and now surely focused on ensuring they continue their remarkable record of Champions League qualification.
Wenger has put much of their disappointing form in the first half of the season down to a succession of injuries. Those problems have been easing in recent weeks, with the likes of Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny returning to fitness. But he club have suffered a fresh blow ahead of the trip to Manchester, with another of the players to have only recently returned to action, Mathieu Debuchy, set to be sidelined for three months with a dislocate shoulder suffered in a 3-0 win over Stoke City last week. Furthering the disappointment, captain Mikel Arteta has been ruled out for another six weeks after undergoing surgery on his ankle.
While Arsenal struggle to bolster their ailing squad in the January transfer window, Manchester City have this week gone out and splashed £25 million on bolstering their already strong ranks with former Swansea City striker Wilfried Bony. City fans will have to wait to see his debut in a City shirt, with the Ivorian, along with compatriot Yaya Toure, away at the Africa Cup of Nations. But that disappointment is tempered by the return to fitness of Sergio Agüero. The Argentina international, who has 19 goals to his name already this season returned off the bench in a 1-1 draw with Everton last weekend and, although manger Manuel Pellegrini refused to confirm it, is now expected to start on Sunday. Captain Vincent Kompany is also in line for a return, although Edin Dzeko remains a doubt and former Arsenal midfielder Samir Nasri is ruled out.
The draw at Everton means City go into the meeting with Arsenal two points behind leaders Chelsea, and Pellegrini is eager to close the gap as soon as possible.
“We have to play 17 games more, 51 points,” he said at his press conference. “I think that 51 and [City’s current total] 47 are 98. I think we can drop points also and win the title. I’m sure all the teams will drop points now before the end of the year. But the less you drop the better. I think it’s important to try and recover the top of the table in this match.”
Prediction: The loss of Debuchy is a significant blow, with either of the inexperienced duo of Calum Chambers and Hector Bellerin now set to be called upon. The attacking instincts of Arsenal’s full-backs has been a key part of their problems in big games of late, as has a lack of presence in front of the back four. Francis Coquelin has done a solid job since coming into the side, but, despite the absence of Toure, he could struggle to match up to City’s midfield. And in front of him, though Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla have been key to Arsenal’s free-flowing play of late, the duo may not be trusted with the defensive work likely to be required at the Etihad.
With Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal can certainly exploit a Manchester City defense that is less than watertight. But Arsenal’s attacking, open style plays into City’s hands. Agüero is the deadliest penalty-box presence in the Premier League and, supplied by the brilliant David Silva and the blistering pace out wide of Jesus Navas, he could well mark his return to the starting lineup with a flourish. There should again be no shortage of goals, and City look likely to again come out on top.
Manchester City 3-1 Arsenal
Kickoff time: 11 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra