It may only be December, but Arsenal’s matchup with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday feels like the Gunners’ biggest game of the season thus far.
After a week that saw 12 goals scored, three wins, two hattricks and a first place finsh in the Champions League group, Arsenal’s brilliant December took a turn for the worst when they slipped to a 2-1 defeat at Everton on Tuesday night. To rub salt in the wounds, every other team in the top eight won in Gameweek 16.
This all puts Arsenal in a precarious position in the table ahead of Sunday’s crucial clash with Manchester City. They’re sandwiched between Liverpool and City, below the Reds on goals scored (interestingly, Arsenal and Liverpool have identical records and goal differences) and ahead of the Sky Blues by a point. With the halfway point of the season nearing, the table is beginning to take shape and a win in this match would be a massive statement of intent from either side.
For the Gunners, Sunday is all about response. Premier League champions are often defined by the way they respond to defeats, and Sunday is a chance for Arsenal to prove that they’re made of sterner stuff than past seasons. The defeat at Goodison Park was only their second in the league this season, the last coming at the hands of Liverpool on the opening day. Arsene Wenger’s side responded phenomenally to that 4-3 loss, going on a 14-game unbeaten run, and a similar response is needed this time around if they’re to keep in touch with high-flying Chelsea at the top of the table.
Arsenal’s performance against Everton wasn’t terrible. It was far from the free-flowing football we’ve gotten used to watching in the past few weeks, but it was also far from the worst we’ve seen from the Gunners this season. Not to make excuses, but the lack of spark and invention going forward seemed to reflect tiredness after playing three days earlier rather than a deeper underlying issue.
With a full four days to prepare for the game against City, I’m expecting Arsene Wenger to field an unchanged eleven at the Etihad Stadium. In the heart of the defense, Gabriel will continue to fill in for the sidelined Shkodran Mustafi alongside Laurent Koscielny, the captain of the side. Despite showing signs of rust against Everton, Hector Bellerin will make his second start since returning from injury. Expect Nacho Monreal to get the nod ahead of Kieran Gibbs—although the Spaniard’s place in the first team isn’t nearly as secure as it once was—and Petr Cech to start between the sticks.
The midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin contain the right balance of steel and craft to get a result at the Etihad, with Aaron Ramsey still carrying a hamstring injury and Santi Cazorla out until February of next year. In attacking midfield, Mesut Özil will look to continue his surprisingly prolific season with a big-game performance to prove his critics wrong.
Arsene Wenger’s biggest selection headache will likely come in his decision of who to start on the wings. Neither Theo Walcott nor Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were particularly impressive against Everton, with Walcott attempting just 14 passes—the same amount as Alex Iwobi, who was subbed on in the 70th minute. That said, I see Walcott getting the start due to his tendency to score in big games. The battle between the Ox and Iwobi for the starting position on the left wing is neck-and-neck, but I think the Ox will just edge this one out as his direct running will give the leggy Pablo Zabaleta a handful.
Up top, Alexis Sanchez gives Wenger his easiest decision in the starting eleven. The Chilean has thrived in his new role as Arsenal’s center forward this season, notching up 14 goals and eight assists in all competitions. If the Gunners are to grab all three points at the Etihad, you can bet Alexis will have something to do with it.
As for Manchester City’s team news, there’s hardly a better time to be playing the Citizens. Pep Guardiola’s side will be without Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho, who are still serving four-match bans for misconduct at the end of City’s 3-1 defeat to Chelsea earlier this month. Vincent Kompany remains injured until 2017, while Ilkay Gündogan is sidelined with a devastating knee injury suffered against Watford in midweek.
With so much at stake for two teams hoping to be top of the table in May, expect a feisty encounter on Sunday.
Predicted XI: Cech; Bellerin, Gabriel, Koscielny, Gibbs; Xhaka, Coquelin; Walcott, Özil, Oxlade-Chamberlain; Sanchez.
All statistics via WhoScored.com.
Follow me on Twitter @Gunner_NYC