Manchester City are ready to eat Arsenal alive

Arsenal's Gabriel and Martin Odegaard react - Reuters/Hannah Mckay

For the first time this season, a staggering, breathless title race, packed with more twists than a double helix, is out of Arsenal’s hands. If Manchester City win their last eight games, they are champions. That might sound an absurdly daunting proposition, given the stomach-churning rises and falls for both protagonists already, but it is not beyond a team of City’s mettle and stamina when it comes to these run-in duels. Do not forget that in 2019, they won their last 14 in a row to beat Liverpool by a point.

As the curtain fell on a bewildering evening at the Emirates, Arsenal’s reaction conveyed none of the triumphalism of players who had scored twice in the final minutes to salvage a point against Southampton. It was one of exhaustion and resignation, as they caught a glimpse of the sky-blue pantechnicon barrelling towards them in the rear-view mirror. Serious candidates for the title, they hardly needed reminding, did not lose in late April to opponents scrapping at the bottom of the table, 51 points behind.

Arsenal still are credible title material. The resolve with which they have kept this quest together, somehow resisting the remorselessness of the City machine, has offered an object lesson in giving a brilliant young manager time to craft a project. But the sheer madcap energy of it all is taking its toll. Some of the games have simply been too torrid, too precarious for Arsenal’s own good. Take the 4-2 victory over Aston Villa from 2-0 down, or the Reiss Nelson wonder-strike to see off Bournemouth at the death. Both were cathartic feats in their own right, but both left the energy bank dangerously depleted for the decisive last stretch.

It is a pattern glimpsed often in other sports. Ronnie O’Sullivan claims he cannot win a world championship in snooker unless he swats aside his early opponents with ease. Andy Murray wins two unforgettable five-setters in Melbourne but then discovers he has nothing more left to give. Arsenal seem to be fast approaching the same juncture. They have entertained everybody royally for eight months, but they are running on fumes. And now, with the fuel gauge firmly in the red zone, they must head to the Etihad for the most gruelling test of all.

The portents are inauspicious. Arsenal were deftly filleted by City in north London just two months ago, and momentum has since switched ominously in the reigning champions’ favour. Pep Guardiola has just masterminded a 4-1 aggregate triumph over Bayern Munich, feared Champions League adversaries but made to look ordinary by the peerless Erling Haaland. Mikel Arteta, by contrast, has just watched his players ship three goals at home to a Southampton side staring relegation in the face. What awaits on Wednesday night is unquestionably the game of the season, but on the present lines it does not look a fair fight.

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reacts after Southampton's Duje Caleta-Car scores their third goal - Reuters/John Sibley
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reacts after Southampton’s Duje Caleta-Car scores their third goal – Reuters/John Sibley

The respective defences, in particular, appear mismatched. Arsenal without William Saliba can look flaky, vulnerable, even callow. And yet City, having had a rocket put under them by Guardiola in January, are as insuperable at the back as at any point during the Spaniard’s seven years in charge. John Stones and Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji are all vastly improved on last year’s versions of themselves, when according to Guardiola, City had grown complacent, perhaps assuming that Arsenal would stumble.

It has taken longer than anybody imagined to arrive, but Arsenal are truly teetering now, lurching towards the finish line as inelegantly as any drunk struggling to catch the last Tube home from Holloway Road. This is not, to put it bluntly, championship pedigree. The great serial winners know what it means to time a run. Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson surely did, and Guardiola’s City have perfected the art, channelling true fortitude to edge out Liverpool again in 2022, somehow rallying from two goals down to vanquish Aston Villa on the final day.

City have shown that these are the periods that sort the champions from the mere pretenders. Arsenal, sadly, are wilting when it matters most. If losing two games from two ahead this month was not a sufficiently urgent warning, their chaotic draw with Southampton has just confirmed one glaring truth: that City, battle-hardened and ravenous for a fifth title in six years, are ready to eat them alive.

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