LONDON (Reuters) - When this season’s Premier League fixture list was released, Arsenal against Manchester City in April looked like a potential title decider.
In reality, neither team goes into Sunday’s game with a realistic hope of catching leaders Chelsea, but instead are focusing on keeping their own faltering seasons on track.
For either side, failure to qualify for the Champions League would be unacceptable, but for third-placed City and the sixth-placed Gunners, this is a genuine possibility.
Next month the pair meet in the FA Cup semi-final but right now Sunday’s Premier League clash is far more significant.
Victory for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal would end a Premier League win drought of nearly two months, and be their first over one of the ‘Big Six’ since they beat Chelsea 3-0 in September, a result which saw the west London side’s coach Antonio Conte change tactics and kick-start a charge towards the title.
That must seem a lifetime ago to Wenger, who knows another sub-standard showing on Sunday will increase the fans’ desire to see the Frenchman leave when his deal expires after the season.
Having had a two-week international break to fix things after a 3-1 loss at West Bromwich Albion last time out, Wenger desperately needs one of his big names to step up against City.
Midfielder Mesut Ozil’s return to fitness, having played for Germany after missing four of Arsenal’s last nine league games, is encouraging, but a perceived lack of physicality in recent games, with players easily outmuscled, must worry Wenger.
Playmaker Santi Cazorla’s absence has been felt while Alexis Sanchez’s absence on international duty with Chile seems to have done little to calm his dissatisfaction.
Sanchez reportedly had an angry exchange with national team goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo - who is likely to be on the bench rather than the pitch for City on Sunday.
Pep Guardiola’s team are frustratingly inconsistent, sweeping aside inferior opposition before being shown up by a quality side like AS Monaco in the Champions League.
Despite a decent 1-1 draw with Liverpool before the inernational break, City were not at their free-flowing best and got a 35,000-pound ($43,946.00) FA fine for failing to control their players when disputing refereeing decisions.
Striker Sergio Aguero may be biding his time with a possible summer move on the cards while winger Raheem Sterling, who impressed on England duty before picking up a back injury, continues to exasperate with his fitful displays.
Guardiola seems to know how to handle him but having paid Liverpool 49 million pounds ($60.88 million) for the 22-year-old, City have a right to expect more consistency from Sterling.
Their best tactic could be to try and rattle Arsenal with an early blow and hope the reaction of the Gunners’ famously dissatisfied fans will further unsettle their side.
For all the media talk that Wenger wants to stay, he knows he must produce something positive this season. Sunday is a chance to take a step in the right direction.
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Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ken Ferris and Julian Shea