By Richard Clarke
It is an arguable point but perhaps Arsenal's most gratifying 90 minutes of the season came at the Etihad Stadium back in September.
The 1-1 draw was much less spectacular than the 7-3, the 5-7, the 6-1 or the two 5-2s this term - and it was not even a win of course. On paper it might look like a stolen point given centre back Laurent Koscielny thumped home the equaliser with just eight minutes remaining.
However the performance was very different.
The season was only five games old but Arsenal had gone to a multi-million, multi-talented side still high on the drama of their fairytale title win and played well enough, according to some, to have snatched all three points.
Ahead of the return fixture at Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Wenger recalled the draw, and more importantly, the quality of the display.
"It gave us optimism because it was a level game and we could have won it," he said.
"We certainly had the chances to win it. The quality of our game was good and I remember one or two times we had the opportunities to win it.
"It gave us early hope to be very competitive at the top. We have dropped off since but I believe in the last two months, we have come back.
"Now we have big games coming up," he went on. "That's why the results and the quality of our game is very important once again. We are on a good run and I believe the way we mastered the second half against Swansea last weekend was very good.
"So it's important we get stronger from game to game."
And that means now.
The Manchester City game is the start of an 18-day period where Arsenal will play potentially six games - four in the Premier League, two in the FA Cup.
It is too much to say it will be "season-defining" or even "season-shaping" but it will be highly influential.
Especially as four of those six are at Emirates Stadium, and an improvement in home form was Wenger's singular New Year resolution.
"For us this is a very important game," he said. "Winning the big home games will have a big impact on where we finish. We know that. It's important for us that we win these sort of games at home until the end of the season.
"The players are ambitious and this group has a fantastic attitude. They were not always playing in a positive environment, so it was not easy for them but I could not, even for one day, fault their concentration and focus to do well and their ambition. I want this group to be rewarded and hope we can show that during the next six games."
The off-field conditions are right. Gervinho is at the Africa Cup of Nations but the only injury at the moment is Lukasz Fabianski (ankle). Although Olivier Giroud was considered a doubt with a gashed knee, the striker tweeted on Saturday that he would be involved. The manager was also mulling over the inclusion of Abou Diaby after his eye-catching comeback in the Under-21s in midweek.
Second-place Manchester City are seven points behind Manchester United right now and, although they bridged a similar gap late last season, you sense Roberto Mancini's side need to make a move quickly as the Old Trafford outfit are looking ominously efficient.
Sir Alex Ferguson's side travel to Liverpool on Sunday lunchtime and could be 10 points clear by kick-off at Emirates Stadium. Only once in the Premier League era has a side, apart from Manchester United, retained the title. At the moment, it appears Mancini will suffer the same fate as Wenger in 1999, 2003 and 2005 but, despite the prevailing wind, those very experiences have taught the Frenchman to avoid definitive statements with so many matches still to play.
"The Premier League is far from over," he said. "Every team has vulnerabilities, so it's down to consistency until the end of the season now. Manchester United are still in the Champions League as well, so they will have a lot of effort to put in. You never know what kind of impact it has in the League.
"Manchester City have had good and less good periods, a little bit like us. Therefore, they have dropped off a little bit from Man United. But they know they can still come back in the Premier League. Their campaign in Europe was maybe not what they expected. Apart from that, they remain a very good side."
Mancini will be missing Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Yaya Toure through injury, suspension and international duty respectively.
In his last two Premier League visits to Emirates, Manchester City have failed to score. In fact they have only hit the net once in League football at Arsenal's ‘new' stadium and their last win on red-and-white soil in North London came back in 1975.
Wenger expects more expansion from Manchester City this time.
"Football is unpredictable and you never know what will happen before a big game," said the manager. "But I felt the last game, the 1-1 at City, was a good game, and an open one as well where both teams had chances. The fact that both teams have to absolutely go for a win promises a more open game this Sunday. Last time City came to Emirates they would have been happy with a draw. I think they're in a situation where a draw will not be good enough, and we are in the same situation. So I expect a more open game.
"They have to go for it but I think their structure has become a bit more defensive because they recently played Garcia, Milner and Barry. They are a bit more naturally defensive than if they play with Toure, Silva and Nasri, plus the two strikers.
"But it's a game you don't want to lose. You don't even want to draw. It is a game you want to win."
Arsenal: Fabianski (ankle), Gervinho (international duty)
Manchester City: Aguero (hamstring) Maicon (knee), Richards (knee), Rodwell (hamstring), Nasri (suspended), Razak, K Toure, Y Toure (all international duty)
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