Arsenal will prioritise finishing in the Premier League top four over their bid to win the Europa League, according to midfielder Granit Xhaka.
The Gunners moved up to fourth with an unconvincing 1-0 win against 10-man Watford on Monday night as Unai Emery looks to secure a return to Champions League football after just a season at the helm.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the only goal at Vicarage Road with 10 minutes gone as Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster dallied in possession and then struck his clearance straight onto the boot of the Gabon forward who was tearing down on him.
Moments later, Hornets skipper Troy Deeney was sent off after it was adjudged that he had caught Lucas Torreira with a flailing arm.
The win, just Arsenal’s sixth on the road in the league this season, was enough to take Emery’s side above both Chelsea and Manchester United ahead of Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final second leg against Napoli.
Arsenal hold a 2-0 advantage heading to Naples, but Xhaka insists their main focus is on securing a top-four Premier League finish.
“I think we want to stay in the top four – we want to be back in the Champions League,” he said.
“I think, for me, the Premier League is first and after if you can go to the final and take the Europa League, of course it is nice as well but for us it is the Premier League first.
“I think for us the biggest game was last night, it is always like this. We are now in fourth place, two points over United, one game less than Chelsea and one point behind Tottenham and they play against Manchester City next week. It can be a big, big weekend for us.”
Deeney’s early dismissal should have been enough to ensure Arsenal collected a rare away win but Watford were the better team throughout and hit the woodwork twice as the FA Cup finalists chased a deserved equaliser.
But, at this stage of the campaign, Xhaka believes it is all about points and not performances, and he feels the Watford result will have no bearing on what happens in Italy on Thursday.
“I don’t care if we win 1-0 or 6-0, it is the same three points,” the Switzerland international added.
“For me, it is better if you play like this and you win, than when we have played away and played better games but not taken the three points. I am happy for this performance, but most important is the three points.
“I think against Napoli it is a different game. We had a good result at home, 2-0, but it will not be easy in Napoli as you have seen with Liverpool there or Paris (Saint-Germain).
“Napoli have a good team, especially with their fans, but 2-0 is a good result and I hope we can go to the semi-final.”
Watford were playing their first game since sealing a place in the FA Cup final with an extra-time Wembley win over Wolves.
Javi Gracia said after the game he was unsure why Deeney was sent off but will have been pleased with the effort of his players to remain in the contest.
Defender Craig Cathcart saw a shot turned onto the post by Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno – arguably man of the match – and the Northern Ireland international was proud of the team’s display.
“I don’t think this will affect us at all,” he told watfordfc.com.
“We’ve put in a great performance given the way things went in the first 15 minutes. We can be proud of how we played. It was difficult and we had to run a lot but we can be very proud of ourselves.
“We had 10 men but if anything it looked like they had the 10 men. We had more possession, we had decent opportunities to score and we’re really disappointed coming off the pitch with nothing from the game.”
The pair both joined City in the summer of 2015 in big-money deals, Sterling from Liverpool for £44million and De Bruyne from Wolfsburg for £55m.
De Bruyne, after his brief spell at Chelsea, was well aware of his fellow new arrival’s reputation but was surprised to discover the man did not live up to his billing.
“Before I came to Manchester City, I didn’t really know what to make of this Raheem Sterling guy,” the Belgium midfielder wrote in a piece in The Players’ Tribune.
“I had never met him, and from what I’d read about him…I thought he was going to be a very different character.
“The tabloids were always claiming that he was arrogant. So I guess I thought he’d be … what do the English call it? A bit of a d***head, maybe?
“They said Raheem was this flashy guy who left Liverpool for money. They said I was ‘the Chelsea reject’. They said we were difficult characters.
“Then I got to City and I actually met Raheem, and we’d talk a bit after training, and I thought, ‘Wait, this guy seems really cool? What’s the story here?’
“I really got to know Raheem, and I recognised what a smart and genuine person he is. He couldn’t be more different.
“This is the real truth: Raheem is one of the nicest, most humble guys I’ve met in football.”
The perception of Sterling has shifted in the time since he left Liverpool as a precocious teenager and his outspoken views on racism, in addition to the way he has handled abuse on the pitch, have earned him much praise.
Coupled with his form on the pitch the England international is one of the leading candidates for this year’s Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year Award.
With a bit more good luck with injuries this season De Bruyne could have been joining him on that list.
“Raheem and I have this strong connection, because we arrived at City around the same time, and there was a lot of negativity about us in the press,” the Belgian added.
“When I was at Chelsea, there was so much in the press about my relationship with Jose Mourinho but the truth is that I only ever spoke to him twice.
“I thought maybe Chelsea would let me go (in the summer of 2013) but then Mourinho texted me (to say) ‘You are staying. I want you to be part of this team’.
“I started two of the first four games of the season, after the fourth game that was it. I was on the bench, and I never really got a chance again.
“I didn’t get an explanation. I was just out of favour for some reason.
“Jose called me into his office in December, and it was probably the second big life-changing moment for me.
“He had some papers in front of him, and he said: ‘One assist. Zero goals. Ten recoveries’.
“I was completely honest. I said: ‘I feel like the club doesn’t really want me here. I want to play football. I’d rather you sell me’.
“So the club ended up selling me, and there was no big problem at all. Chelsea got more than double the price they paid for me, and I got into a much better situation at Wolfsburg.”
De Bruyne could still play a pivotal part in City’s quest for the quadruple but it has been a frustrating time for him this season.
“This season has not been easy for me. The injuries and the matches that I’ve missed have been extremely difficult for me, mentally,” he said.
“Sitting and watching a match from the stands is basically worse than torture for me. I can’t cope.
“Even at funerals, I don’t cry. But if you take football away from me? Forget it. I can’t cope.”
Pep Guardiola feels Manchester City will have to win all their remaining five games to pip Liverpool and retain the Premier League title.
City briefly took top spot on Sunday afternoon following a 3-1 win at Crystal Palace, until the Reds went back to the summit by beating Chelsea.
It means City remain two points behind but, crucially, they have a game in hand, and Guardiola believes they cannot afford a single slip-up during the run-in.
“We think Liverpool are going to win all their games, but the Premier League position is in our hands,” he said.
“We have to win every game if we want to make back-to-back titles. We know that, and the players have shown they want to do it, and I didn’t have any doubts about that.”
Selhurst Park has been a graveyard for title campaigns in the recent past, notably when Liverpool’s wheels came off in 2014 and City suffered a similar fate a year later.
But Raheem Sterling’s double and a late third from Gabriel Jesus, after Luka Milivojevic gave Palace brief hope with a free-kick, kept City’s bid to retain their crown firmly on track.
“I’m so pleased,” added Guardiola. “The amount of games we have had – Brighton, and three days later the Champions League, and now here, and the way we played for 75 or 80 minutes was really good.
“In two seasons we’ve got 83 points with five games left. Incredible numbers and it shows how consistent we are.”
Palace boss Roy Hodgson has no doubt they can pull off an unprecedented four-timer.
“I think they look in very good shape,” he said. “They came here with a fully-fit squad and they paid us the respect of putting a very strong team out. That doesn’t make the task any easier.
“I can only say what everyone else knows. They are a very good team and will take some beating in any competition they play.”
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