By Richard Clarke
Arsenal left Manchester on August 28 a beaten and, some feared, broken side. They return this Sunday as a team transformed but, at the same time, all too aware that the extent of their repair job is being measured against Premier League leaders.
If the season had started after that 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford then Arsène Wenger's side would be third, just three points off the top. As it is, they go to the Eithad Stadium in fifth, nine points shy of Manchester City.
Whatever way you look at it, all the Arsenal graphs go upward, it is only the gradient that varies.
Ironically, the Londoners would have spent their first week of the season in the top four if Roberto Mancini's men had won at Chelsea on Monday night. It looked likely when Mario Ballotelli put them in front however the home side stormed back to inflict a first Premier League defeat on Manchester City this term. The blow came shortly after their surprise exit from the Champions League.
It leaves Sunday's clash in an intriguing position - the strongest team of the season vs the strongest team of the moment. And Wenger believes that previous Manchester defeat can only be a positive influence on his side.
"You never forget [games like] that but you put it behind you," he said. "I have never given too much importance to big scores because there are always special circumstances.
"Manchester United scored four goals in the last 20 minutes when we were on our knees, down to 10 men and still chasing to come back. On the day every ball they hit went in the top corner. It's part of football and it's obviously something we don't want. But on Sunday that won't even cross our minds.
"Let's not fool ourselves, it took us a while to get over it. We came back slowly. We won 1-0 against Swansea with a ‘petty' goal. It was lucky but there is something in the team that shows we have resilience. And it can help us on Sunday if we have a strong mental response from our players."
Wenger's squad is likely to be unchanged from the one that squeezed past Everton last weekend at Emirates Stadium. That means the Frenchman is likely to parade both the tallest defence and most potent striker in the Club's recent history.
Plus a keeper who is making a difference.
At the start of their current fine run, Wojciech Szczesny was making at least one world-class save per game. It is measure of the Arsenal's increasing defensive cohesion that the Pole is no longer extended with such regularity. However it is reassuring to have that ability in the last line of defence. Wenger remembered one save from Lee Cattermole against Sunderland at Emirates as especially significant.
"I thought it was a goal," said the manager. "I didn't see how he could miss it. But Szczesny is capable of that sort of save.
"He has charisma and that is needed for a goalkeeper. That means you think that he will [make the] save and not be fazed by the occasion. That stop was one of the turning points maybe for the run that we are on at the moment. I hope he will save one or two like that on Sunday."
Manchester City have had a tough month - clinging on to a draw at Liverpool, that Champions League exit and defeat to Chelsea - but they are hardly struggling. Their Premier League record at the Eithad Stadium reads W7 D0 L0 F24 A4. However, perhaps it is telling that they have conceded in each of their last eight games in all competitions.
"Their home form is absolutely exceptional and it is a massive test for us," said Wenger. "We are ready mentally and physically, we are focused and we have a chance to win the game.
"Let's go there with the right attitude and try to do our best on the day. If we play at our best I think we can beat anybody in the world. We can beat Man City."
They did just that last season. Arsenal went to Manchester with a certain stat concerning a lack of "Big Four" wins ringing in their ears. They came back with an emphatic 3-0 win though, in fairness, the home side were down to 10 men from the opening minutes.
"We won that game in a very professional way," recalled Wenger. "But it is like all the big games, there is uncertainty. You have to make the decisive moments go for you. However we have a good example to follow with our game at Chelsea; even at 1-0 down we didn't give up and continued to play our game. In the end we won."
Arsenal complimented their 3-0 win last season with a goalless draw at Emirates in early 2011. In fact Manchester City's last League goal against Wenger's men came from Emmanuel Adebayor in a tempestuous affair at Eastlands in October 2009. The striker is one of number of players who have shed the red-and-white to don sky blue in recent seasons.
It illustrates the differing strategies of the Clubs - Manchester City investing heavily, Arsenal sticking with their self-sustaining model. But Wenger scoffed at suggestion an away victory this weekend would be some sort of ethical triumph too.
"I would get a personal, professional satisfaction to win the game on Sunday," he said. "But all these considerations of how much money they have and we have does not really come into the game or into your way of thinking. You just want to do as well as you can."
Arsenal's own summer outlay has started to reap a dividend. Click through this website to consider the bench at Old Trafford back on that horrible August day. It was full of young talent, certainly, but you would venture to suggest that Sunday's will have ten times the footballing gravitas.
Two months after the 8-2, Manchester City went and won 6-1 at Old Trafford. "So that means they will score 14 against us," laughed the manager when the comparison was put to him at Friday's press conference.
It was a joke against the ‘quick conclusions' he always dismisses. Just like the assertion he swatted aside at the end of his press conference on Friday - that Arsenal are back in the title race.
"Let's wait a little bit," he cautioned. "I think we are on the road of recovery but we have a big test on Sunday and we will see how we will survive that test.
"We have to be closer to Man City to be really in it and the race for the Champions League places at the moment.
"Certainly the purpose is to get closer and, of course, we have a good opportunity to do it on Sunday."
Referee: P Dowd
Arsenal: Santos (ankle), Fabianski (knee), Mannone (shoulder), Wilshere (ankle), Gibbs (stomach), Jenkinson (back), Diaby (hamstring), Sagna (ankle), Ryo (ankle).
Man City: Clichy (suspended), Kolarov (groin)
* The League record between the sides in games at Manchester City is remarkably even. Arsenal's tally reads: W33 D20 L30 F120 A 116
* Arsenal have won their last three away games in the Premier League
* If Manchester City avoid defeat they will have gone a year without defeat at home.
* Arsenal have won 10 of the 14 Premier League matches between the two clubs in Manchester.