Fortunate to have dropped only one point midweek after a stunning loss, Manchester City attempt to regroup Sunday at the Etihad where they face an Arsenal team presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to strengthen their hold on fourth in the table.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The reigning champions appeared to have everything in control from the opening kickoff at St James’ Park on Tuesday when Sergio Aguero scored 24 seconds into the match. But a disallowed goal on 17 minutes – referee Paul Tierney ruled Kevin De Bruyne’s re-start on a free kick that Aguero finished came too soon – provided Newcastle United a lifeline to stay in the match while City laboured to find a second goal.
That marker, though, would not come for Pep Guardiola’s side. First the Magpies leveled through Salomon Rondon, and then Fernandinho hauled down Sean Longstaff in the penalty area on 80 minutes. Matt Ritchie beat Ederson from the spot, and Manchester City (18-2-4) had their eight-match winning streak in all competitions come to a stunning end.
The Citizens, though, got a lifeline of their own from Leicester City, who held table-toppers Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Wednesday. The result left Man City five points adrift of the Reds with 14 matches remaining while Tottenham Hotspur clawed within two points of second.
With Manchester City still on a trophy hunt in four competitions, their superior depth is going to be sternly tested in the next fortnight. By reaching the Carabao Cup final, scheduled for Feb. 24 at Wembley, City’s match at Everton scheduled for Feb. 23 has been moved to Wednesday. That has given Guardiola a challenging three-match gauntlet starting with this contest since City host Chelsea on Feb. 10.
“The next week will be tough with Arsenal, Everton and Chelsea,” Guardiola told the club’s official website. “If we want to go up as a club we have to accept that challenge. We are in January and we are behind the leaders but there are a lot of titles and points to play for.”
After hosting the Pensioners, the Premier League champions then have their fifth-round FA Cup tie at either Middlesbrough or Newport County. Their first leg round of 16 Champions League tie at German side Schalke 04 follows, and then the Carabao Cup final.
City’s depth is already being tested to a degree as centre back Vincent Kompany continues to be sidelined through injury. Left back Benjamin Mendy did not make the 18-man squad for the Newcastle match, and it is uncertain if he will be left out again as he continues to make his way back from a knee injury. With seven matches in 24 days, it is squad players like Kompany, Fabian Delph, Phil Foden, Nicolas Otamendi and even Oleksandr Zinchenko who could wind up determining just how many of the four trophies – if any – City will win after doing the double last term.
Arsenal’s last realistic hope for a trophy in Unai Emery’s first season in charge lies in the Europa League, which resumes play with the knockout stages later this month. The Gunners (14-5-5) were bounced from the FA Cup last weekend at home by resurgent Manchester United, and the London side are now in a three-way fight with them and city rivals Chelsea for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Arsenal are provisionally fifth, three points behind the Pensioners after they flattened Huddersfield Town 5-0 on Saturday to rebuild a superior goal difference on the Gunners.
In their 2-1 mid-week win over Cardiff City, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang converted from the spot on 66 minutes and set up Alexander Lacazette’s match-sealing goal seven minutes from time as Arsenal moved into fourth on goal scored over Chelsea as both sides are plus-17 and only two points clear of hard-charging United. The Gunners have alternated wins and losses in their last five matches in all competitions and are 5-1-5 since having their 22-match unbeaten run end.
Aubameyang and Lacazette have accounted for 29 of Arsenal’s 71 goals in all competitions, with no other player registering more than five. The Gunners tried to be active before the close of the January window, reportedly trying to land Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic and Yannick Carrasco, who is with China’s Dalian Yifang.
Instead, they were only able to land midfielder Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona – another sign in which Emery appears to be ready to move on from Mesut Ozil. Emery is plenty familiar with Suarez, having coached him at Sevilla. And with Suarez quickly registered to be available for this match, there is a chance Emery may start him straightaway.
“We need every player to be OK and with the mentality to play on Sunday,” Emery said at his Friday news conference. “We have maybe some injuries but we have other players who can play and help the team with their qualities, with the performances, with their condition. On Sunday, I am positive about the possibility of playing different players.”
Suarez’s arrival gives Emery and Arsenal the central midfield playmaker that have been lacking since Ozil’s preference has been to play on the wing while Emery prefers Aaron Ramsey coming off the bench. In Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 set-up, Suarez would be flanked by Aubameyang and Alex Iwobi. If he uses a diamond midfield, Suarez would likely be the forward tip playing underneath Aubameyang and Lacazette.
Emery, though, still has all sorts of concerns with a patchwork defence without Sokratis, Hector Bellerin, and Rob Holding. Shkodran Mustafi was drafted in central defence with Nacho Monreal, and Konstantinos Mavropanos made the 18-man roster for the first time this season Tuesday.
Another worry on the back line is the status of right back Ashley Maitland-Niles, who has missed the last two games with a knee injury. If he is unable to go, Emery would have to turn to veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner – a scenario that played out in the reverse fixture when Maitland-Niles was forced off with a knock in the first half of Arsenal’s 2-0 home loss.
Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva scored the goals in that match, both latching onto crosses from Mendy on either side of halftime as City won their fourth on the bounce in all competitions versus Arsenal. The Gunners have gone 295 minutes without a goal against City since Lacazette scored in the 65th minute of a 3-1 defeat in last season’s corresponding fixture.
Manchester City have not won four consecutive league matches over Arsenal since doing the double in both the 1935-36 and 1936-37 seasons.
Per Bet365, the reigning Premier League champions are 2/7 favourites to claim all three points and pull within two points of table-toppers Liverpool prior to their match versus West Ham, while Arsenal are 15/2 longshots to grab all three points in their bid to firm up their hold on fourth. The odds of a draw are 5/1.
Oddsmakers are expecting a glut of goals, with the over for the 2.5-goal threshold offering only 4/11 odds compared to 11/5 for a match with two or fewer. There are 8/13 odds on the two sides each scoring at least once versus 11/5 odds on there being at least one clean sheet.
Unsurprisingly, Aguero is the top choice for first goal-scorers, getting 5/2 odds to give City a 1-0 lead for the second straight contest. Gabriel Jesus is a 10/3 selection, while a trio of Sky Blues wingers — Sane, Sterling and Riyad Mahrez — are all 9/2 picks. Aubameyang is further back at 13/2, with De Bruyne and David Silva both 8/1 options ahead of Lacazette (10/1).
All told, five City players are better than even money to score during this match, with Aguero a staggering 4/9 selection ahead of Jesus (4/6) and the aforementioned trio of wingers at 20/21. Aubameyang has 6/4 odds on rippling the net for the Gunners, with his French teammate Lacazette checking in at 12/5 behind De Bruyne and Silva (15/8). Mesut Ozil is a 4/1 pick as an anytime goal-scorer, and Aaron Ramsey is a 9/2 option.
One gets the sense there is a perfect storm converging against Arsenal for this match. City are coming off a shocking road loss to Newcastle, and they may get a key player back in Mendy. On the surface, the Gunners appear to be ok, but if Suarez does start and Ozil does not, it is another marker this is Emery’s team and that the rebuild is taking priority over a potential Champions League berth in terms of league finish.
City have hit the point in the season where they can afford to lose maybe two league matches maximum. But having their rescheduled match against Everton — and a dysfunctional Toffees lot at that — moved up as opposed to moved back adds a layer of intrigue to the title race. It has the potential to add a layer of pressure on Liverpool, who will enter every match they play knowing they need to “do X” to maintain the status quo.
This match, however, is crying out for De Bruyne to have one of those 90-minute beast matches in which he bosses the midfield and provides one of those assists that drops jaws. Given the centre of the park is there for the taking, even with Torreira, Guendouzi, and Xhaka all potentially playing there, this is the match where City need to show their championship credentials.
It also means Aguero, Sterling, and Leroy Sane must help by way of their pace given Emery is still mixing and matching his back line. The potential of Lichtsteiner at right back must be making Sane drool with anticipation in hopes of being able to corkscrew the veteran Switzerland international into the ground.
This is the game where City must be the City who Guardiola has wanted them to be this season. They showed long stretches of it before the loss to the Magpies. How quickly they regain that swagger will go a long way in determining their success in this match.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3, Arsenal 0.