By Chris Harris
There should be a relaxed atmosphere at Emirates Stadium this evening. Arsenal have eased the tension surrounding their chase for a Champions League place with that vital victory against Bolton while Manchester City, briefly haunted by the threat of relegation, have strung together some decent results to pull away from the drop zone.
But don't confuse relaxation with satisfaction. While Arsenal fans craved a title challenge this term, City supporters expected Stuart Pearce to build on his promising start to managerial life and lead his team to a Uefa Cup spot. An early-season victory over the Gunners heightened expectation at Eastlands but it proved to be yet another false dawn.
We spoke to Chris Ostick of the Manchester Evening News to find out why City have struggled this season. Read on for his assessment of City's strengths and weaknesses, the contenders for the club's player of the season award, City's burgeoning youth policy and the perception of Arsenal in the blue half of Manchester.
THE STORY SO FAR
"It has been very disappointing really. The main problem has been a lack of goals up front, I think City have only scored 10 goals at home all season. They've been a bit better away from home but they haven't found anyone who can put the ball into the back of the net on a regular basis. Corradi has three goals all season, Vassell has been goal-shy and has been played out wide recently, Samarras hasn't scored enough either. Emile Mpenza has come in now and he has three goals in three games and adds a bit of bite, but he is a doubt to face Arsenal. City were in trouble at one stage but they have got some good results recently. Stuart Pearce changed the system, he's been more defensive but City have scraped the odd 1-0 win to ensure safety. There is a question mark over Pearce's future because the players he has brought in have not been a success and there is talk of a takeover now City have secured their Premiership status. The fans started losing patience after City lost at Blackburn in the FA Cup. They are desperate for success and they thought Pearce was the man who could bring that success, but he hasn't proved himself."
MAN OF THE MOMENT
"Joey Barton has driven the side from central midfield. He has his disciplinary problems but he drives City on. You've also got to consider Sylvain Distin and Richard Dunne in central defence. Even though City have struggled in front of goal they have been solid at the back and that's why they've escaped relegation."
"The new signings have had a mixed season. Hatem Trabelsi started well but went downhill rapidly. Didi Hamann kept getting injured at the start of the season but City's recent revival has coincided with his return to the side. Hamann has shored up City's midfield."
THE BOY MOST LIKELY TO
"There is a huge turnover of young players at City - 23 have come from the academy into the first team. Pearce got rid of three or four last summer but Michael Johnson has come in for three or four games and kept his place on merit. Stephen Ireland has cemented his place in the first team and of course there's Micah Richards too. Although he won't play tonight, he's injured."
CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM
"There are reasons to be optimistic - the kids for a start. There's nothing the fans like more than homegrown kids coming through and doing well in the first team. City have a foundation in place, they have a solid back four and Barton, Hamann, Ireland and Johnson in midfield. They are lacking a prolific striker but that could be addressed in the summer. David Nugent has been linked, and Mido was half-an-hour away from signing on transfer deadline day in January before Martin Jol pulled the plug. Pearce went to Emirates Stadium for the Carling Cup Semi-Final and was ready to complete the paperwork, but Jol decided he wanted to keep Mido. That transfer might be resurrected in the summer. If City can get a striker who could score 20 goals a season they could be pushing for a Uefa Cup place."
"Richards is definitely out, so is Trabelsi. Mpenza is in the squad but he faces a late fitness test. Pearce will stick with the 4-5-1 system, he's had some success with that in recent weeks and won't change his approach for Arsenal."
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
"I didn't go to the game between City and Arsenal early in the season but a lot of fans thought that City had the credentials to get into Europe after they won 1-0. The season went downhill from there. What's the perception of Arsenal among City fans? Well, they like them to beat United to the title! Obviously Arsenal have had a disappointing season and the past few weeks have given City hope that they can cause an upset, but Arsenal always play very good football and are full of quality. They've got the likes of Thierry Henry missing but Arsenal are still a class act and if City get anything at Emirates Stadium they will be delighted."
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