Good afternoon gang. A week of expectation that started last Saturday has now finished, and just like after your trip to the dentist’s, it has left a nasty taste in the mouth. A week now awaits Arsenal, a week that looks increasingly like fate beckoning a gnarled finger from the opened door marked ‘Future’.
Sure, Everton at home wasn’t an ‘easy game’ and was in no-way a nailed on three points. It would have been frankly delightful to watch Arsenal capitalise on the hilarious failures of Chelsea and Manchester United, as well as Manchester City’s stumble at-Southampton, and go seven points clear with a win against Everton, but in the end, a draw and a five point gap is what it is; a cushion, a building block – but not clear, open space.
Again, travelling to the south of Italy, to the manic city of Naples was again, another hard, trying game. Napoli had it all to play for, just like Borussia Dortmund against Olympique Marseille. For a while, it was looking likely that the German side would crash out of the group stage as the southern French side rode their almighty luck.
Gonzalo Higuain was always going to net against the side that chased him somewhat half-heartedly during the summer, and whilst Arsenal were met with yet another bizarre, uneven refereeing display this season, which many will blame for the subsequent two-nil loss, we really should perhaps ask: did The Gunners really offer anything that frightened Rafa Benitez’s plucky side? And just how tired now are Olivier Giroud, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey after that defeat?
Saturday lunchtime will see Arsenal travel up North (where we do what we want) and face a Manchester City side who are both bewilderingly incoherent playing away from the Etihad Stadium, but also bewitchingly brilliant whilst playing there in front of their mad-for-it fans. Yaya Toure, David Silva, Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas and even Samir Nasri are all currently in fine, bedazzling form, whilst Sergio Aguero is arguably the best striker in Europe, nay, the world, right now and he is already closing in on his twentieth goal of an increasingly exceptional season. It will take all of Arsenal’s superlative back five’s efforts, and Mathieu Flamini’s organisational aptitude, to keep out the rampant Citizens.
Will Arsenal’s no doubt tired side be able to contain Manchester City – a Manchester City that, lest we forget, travelled to Bayern Munich on Tuesday, suffered a spanking for 20 minutes and then dished out one heck of a pasting to Pep Guardiola’s boys afterwards in response – and come away with what I am sure will prove to be a vital point? If you’d have asked me last season, I would have said ‘no’. However, we do know that last season Arsenal arguably played their best game against a ‘top four rival’ at The Etihad and that Manchester City’s approach to the game actually gave Arsenal space and room to manoeuvre in. But then Manchester City came down to The Emirates, with a weakened side and put Arsenal in their place…This Arsenal side are better than the version seen last season and had, until yesterday, shown remarkable away form. I would take a draw right now. I know Arsenal *could* beat Manchester City on Saturday (we’ll ignore the pre-season meeting, as it was, well, a friendly), but don’t think they will. What gives me hope is that Manchester City’s defence isn’t amazing and Southampton troubled them all game last weekend. Vincent Kompany is easing himself back in after a long injury and whilst Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta are great going forward, they aren’t impregnable when defending (sound familiar?), as Luke Shaw and Dani Osvaldo demonstrated a week ago with impunity.
Following that match up, on Christmas Eve eve, Chelsea and their odious manager Jose Mourinho will come to The Emirates, presumably safely smug in the knowledge that Arsene Wenger has yet to beat a Mourinho-led side, and that Arsenal have already been beaten at home by his Juan Mata-inspired League Cup XI. If Arsenal come away from the Etihad Stadium with a point – or more- I can see the momentum carrying them forward and them beating – finally – this Chelsea side and that pompous, preening manager. If Arsenal do get their backsides handed to them on Saturday, I am increasingly worried that Chelsea have a side with the ability to really rub it into any open wounds and finish off whatever lead Arsenal might still have going into that game. I think this next match is crucial. Theo Walcott – whose absence from the pitch on Wednesday was met by many with utter bewilderment – could be a vital outlet on Saturday against Kolarov and has in the past given Chelsea a headache or two as well.
I said the Manchester United game a few weeks ago was going to be an acid test for the season and may just shape it, and how Arsenal responded surprised me a lot; it showed me that Arsenal can take a defeat from a rival, and then carry on afterwards regardless; Arsenal won the next four fixtures in a row and increased their lead at the top. Now, following the Napoli result, and subsequent realisation that a harder game perhaps follows in the next game than perhaps if Arsenal had topped Group F, this Manchester City game takes on added importance. A draw or a win will have Arsenal back on their feet, a second wind, that I think, as I have said, will see them beating Chelsea nine days later. But a loss…well, that could derail this exceptional progress by Christmas. Much will depend on keeping it tight at the back. Arsenal have shown, against Dortmund, that they can beat a very good side; picking them apart at their home on the break, and can do the same on Saturday. Manchester City aren’t invincible, but they are worryingly efficient at home.
Does Mikel Arteta need dropping after his laboured efforts on Wednesday?
Should Santi Cazorla be replaced by the more subtle probings of Tomas Rosicky?
Can Carl Jenkinson step-up for a very big game against an exceptional attacking force?
Thanks for reading,