The races for the Premier League title and top four were given jolts this week as Manchester City suffered a shock loss to Newcastle and Arsenal sneaked into fourth place as their rivals dropped points.
City were lucky that league leaders Liverpool suffered the same fate, with a draw against Leicester City leaving the gap between the two sides at five points. Pep Guardiola’s side can cut that to two on Sunday when they face Unai Emery’s Arsenal, who should be buoyed by recent results putting them in pole position for the Champions League spots.
Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of the game.
FERNANDINHO NEEDS TO GET ERROR OUT OF HIS SYSTEM
City can’t afford to be dwelling on their loss to Newcastle, and in all likelihood, they won’t be. This game offers them the chance to cut the gap to Liverpool down to two points, with the leaders not playing until the next evening – and that too in a tricky fixture, away to West Ham.
With that in mind, Guardiola will have absorbed the lessons from the midweek loss and gotten it out of his system, and his players are likely to follow suit. But the form and mindset of one player will be the key question for this game.
Fernandinho has been one of City’s most reliable players since joining in 2013. The 33-year-old is indispensable, and so far, despite City’s best efforts given his age, he’s proven to be irreplaceable, as well.
But with age has come all the signs of slowing down, with his error in midweek – giving the ball away while overplaying at the back, then compounding matters by committing a foul in the box trying to win the ball back – the most glaring example there has been a slight drop in usually high standards.
With the quality in Arsenal’s attack, there’s no time for any self-doubt from the Brazilian. How he responds will go a long way in determining whether City retain their title.
CAN EMERY BREAK CITY’S HOLD OVER ARSENAL?
City and Arsenal played each other three times in 2018, with the aggregate score ending 8-0 in City’s favour. The 2-0 defeat for Arsenal on the first day of this season can be excused, given that it was Emery’s first competitive game in charge of the club – and technically an improvement on the two 3-0 losses that had preceded it.
But add the 3-1 loss in November 2017, and it’s clear that ever since Guardiola turned his side into an all-conquering team the previous summer, they’ve inflicted some serious damage on Arsenal.
And it’s not that personnel has changed significantly. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi featured in all three of those fixtures, and except for Ozil, all are more or less guaranteed to play a part in some way on Sunday.
In theory, City are just the sort of team an Emery side should relish playing against. Intense, high-pressing against a team of aesthetes stroking the ball around is how the Arsenal manager made a name for himself.
But this current Arsenal team hasn’t completely been molded in Emery’s image yet, and whether or not he’s made enough of an impression to get rid of some of the scars they have from facing City remains in doubt.
Arsenal’s record against top six rivals away from home over the last five Premier League seasons:— Kevin Palmer (@RealKevinPalmer) February 2, 2019
Points: 7 from a possible 69
Man City away next. Good luck!#AFC
CITY STEEL THEMSELVES FOR CRUCIAL WEEK
It goes without saying when trying to play catch-up in a title race that every game is one that the chasing team can’t afford to lose, but City are about to run a particularly tough gauntlet of fixtures.
Sunday brings Arsenal, then there’s a midweek trip to Everton, followed by a home game against Chelsea next Sunday, with memories of December’s 2-0 loss to the Blues in the reverse fixture still fresh.
If City can get through the next eight days without dropping points, they’ll feel a lot more confident about their title chances, especially as they play one more game than Liverpool over this period – meaning they could end the week only two points behind, even if their rivals will have a game in hand.
Retaining the title is difficult – Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are the only managers to achieved the feat in the Premier League era. Guardiola and City are discovering this the hard way. But the next week could put them in a strong position to join a select group.
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