December 13, 2013

This was not a great week to be a Gooner… but it wasn't a bad week either. It just depends on your perspective.

Arsenal dropped two points against Everton at home on Sunday. But that one point also extended our lead at the top of the table to five points. The tinge of regret was that Mesut Ozil put Arsenal ahead with 10 minutes to go, but we conceded the equalizer just a few minutes later.

Everton played really well and according to several players, including Per Mertesacker, were the toughest opposition we have faced all season. Arsène Wenger noted that their strategy worked well for them – disrupting Arsenal's flow at every opportunity. The boss also mentioned that their equalizer came off a questionable no-call on Romelu Lukaku, but he was quick to add, "But it doesn't mean we have to concede a goal behind that. Deulofeu you have to give him credit, he took his goal very well and you have to accept it."

As Jack Wilshere said after the game, "If you can't win the game, don't lose the game."  So really, it’s not that hard to accept the single point – and the five point lead in the table that came with it.

Before anyone could start to worry that "accepting a point" and being happy with a five-point cushion means complacency, Mathieu Flamini set the record straight. "Yes it's a pretty good position - five points clear, it's positive," he told Arsenal Player. "But it's only the beginning of the championship. A lot of games will come and it's important to win games and not concede goals. It's important to work hard because we know we are going to play a lot of games and it's important to stay focused."

Still, all that table talk at this stage of the season – while exciting – does seem a bit premature. Are the players really looking at the table at this stage of the season? Carl Jenkinson says it’s not really the case. "I think the boys don't really talk about where we are in the league too much if I'm completely honest with you," he said. "We are just trying to take one game at a time and if we do that well then our league position will take care of itself."

And so on Monday morning, Arsenal found themselves topping not just the league table, but also their Champions League Group table. And considering it was the "Group of Death" that's no small accomplishment. And yet, even with 12 points in the group, Arsenal were still not even assured of advancing to the knockout stages.

And here's where the not-great-but-not-bad week continued.

The final match of the group stage in Napoli was very tight throughout. Even immediately after Gonzalo Higuain finally opened the scoring for Napoli in the 74th minute, Arsenal still seemed capable of grabbing the equalizer – and winning the group. But a few minutes later, a controversial second yellow on Mikel Arteta saw Arsenal go down to 10 men and one eye turned to the south of France where, coincidentally, Marseille was holding Dortmund despite also being down to 10 men.

In the end, Arsenal lost 2-0 at Napoli. Combined with Borussia Dortmund's late winner over pointless Marseille, it meant that Arsenal did not win the group, but did advance to the knockout stages for the 14th consecutive year.

While not getting that top spot is a bit frustrating, it really doesn’t change things too much. To win the Champions League you have to beat the top teams at some stage. So now Arsenal will have to knock out one of Barca, Bayern, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or PSG to make it the quarter-finals. For his part, Per Mertesacker thinks a tough draw could actually benefit Arsenal. "I think it is better for us when we have a good lot, when there is a draw that we can concentrate on."

And for all the concern over playing one of the aforementioned teams, Mikel Arteta made a really good point: none of those teams that won their group are going to be very happy to see themselves drawn against us on Monday.

Besides, any of those potential match-ups are unlikely to be much more formidable than our next fixture in the league. After just arriving home in the wee hours of Thursday, Arsenal travel up to Manchester for a lunchtime kickoff against City.

It's far from ideal, but for Wenger it's not an excuse. "I do not complain … we have the fixtures we have." I find that to be a refreshing comment. How often have we heard opposing managers whinge about unfavorable Premier League fixtures after Champions League games? No cries of conspiracy, no pounding fists in outrage …  just "we have the fixtures we have."

Timing aside, this would always be a really tough match. And the players know that. "We need to play much better to win at Man City," said Laurent Koscielny. "It's two hard games that await us so it will be difficult because they are two of the best teams and we need some points."

And he's right. Despite that five-point cushion, dropping points now could negate everything we have accomplished so far. And it seems that many are expecting that very thing to happen. Does that mean Arsenal are still not being taken seriously as a title contender? Wojciech Szczesny hopes so. He knows Saturday will be yet another big test for Arsenal, but adds that "We don't need people to take us seriously, the longer they don't take us seriously I think it's better for us - we'll take advantage of that."

Wenger says that the loss to United last month actually provided some valuable lessons. “I think we have learned from that and we will go into the game [at City] on full cylinders." It's a strategy that has worked against Liverpool and Napoli at home, but City on the road is a very different proposition.

The attacking options available to Manuel Pellegrini are, to put it bluntly, pretty amazing. And City were able to rest a few key players ahead of this game, so that could be an advantage to them.

Still Wenger won't blink. He says that while City have a great squad, "I look at my squad and I do not envy them." And considering that these are the two most clinical teams in the Premier League, you might expect a goal fest.

But it's just as likely that it could be very low scoring game. Man City have both the best home goal scoring record and the best home defense while Arsenal are at the top of the away goals list and have the best away defense. So it may just come down to which team has the better performance in the center of defense. Mertesacker and Koscielny have been impressive at the back all season, and Arsenal's overall defense has clearly benefited from the presence of Flamini in the midfield. Bacary Sagna could also make a return at right-back after a missing a few games. Meanwhile, City's defense will be lifted by the return to fitness of Vincent Kompany.

And one of the standout statistics ahead of the game? There have been six red cards in the last six Premier League meetings between the two clubs – four to Man City and 2 to Arsenal.

Again, it's an early kick-off on this side of the pond. But don’t let that stop you from tuning in. The game will be on NBCSN in the USA and TSN in Canada. And the word on the street is that many of the supporters groups will be turning out at the pub despite the early hours.

It's a big test, and a big day – so come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 13 Dec 2013