By Chris Harris
"It is a significant moment… the team performance has to be spot-on." - Arsene Wenger
That win at Leicester looks pretty good now, doesn't it?
Whatever happens at Emirates Stadium tonight, neither Arsenal nor Manchester City will top the Premier League at Christmas. That honour falls to the Foxes, who made it seven wins out of eight at the weekend and have only lost once all season - 5-2 at home to the Gunners in September.
"At the time nobody really cared about our result [at Leicester]," noted Arsene Wenger in his pre-match interview. "It was their first defeat and everybody thought ‘OK, Leicester will go back into the place they belong’.
"They responded very well to that defeat and today they are top of the league, so you can say it was a fantastic result. Leicester are certainly a candidate to fight until the end now."
For now, the more traditional title contenders just have to stay with the East Midlands upstarts. An Arsenal win tonight will cut the gap to two points, a City win to three points. Wenger's side has found its voice on the big occasion - thanks in part to a seminal win at City in January - and the manager believes his rested side is ready to deliver again.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Welbeck (knee), Rosicky (knee), Coquelin (knee), Arteta (ankle), Cazorla (knee), Alexis (hamstring) Manchester City: Fernando (hamstring), Zabaleta (knee), Kompany (calf), Nasri (hamstring)|
"It is a significant moment," he said. "It is a big game that you play at home. We have beaten them last season and it’s an opportunity that you want to catch. Over this Christmas period, we play three times at home, so it’s very important that our home strength comes out over this period.
"The [eight-day] break was welcome because it gave us a little opportunity to have a recovery period first and then prepare precisely for the game on Monday. I would say we’ve had enough time to prepare well for the game. We had a very demanding week last week, with two away games that were tricky. Olympiacos was a long trip and Aston Villa were physical as well. We needed to rest first.
"The team performance has to be spot-on [against City]. Tactically, you have to be right. Overall, you have to find a good balance between defending and attacking. The collective process has absolutely got to be right. You have individual quality on both sides as well. They can make the difference and on the day they need to have their special day to make the difference for you."
ONE TO WATCH
Mesut Ozil has more special days than most.
The Arsenal playmaker was directly involved in nine Premier League goals last season; this term, that tally is already up to 15. Ozil has raised his level once more in the absence of Alexis and - even if the Chilean returns tonight - it's safe to assume that the talismanic German will be central to Arsenal's performance.
"I think Mesut's technique is perfect, his understanding of the game is perfect, the timing of what he does is perfect," said Wenger.
"I believe has has added something to his game. He’s more penetrative, more incisive, he has more desire to get in the box. When you watch the games well, you see that Mesut Ozil is now getting in the box more and more. He works physically very hard, which people don’t usually realise. Mesut is a guy who covers the distances and who gives absolutely everything in every game."
It's that effort - both individually and collectively - that has helped Arsenal overcome the setback of losing Alexis, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin in quick succession.
"Since Alexis has been injured [the players have stepped up]," said Wenger. "Sometimes what you lose on the individual front you can compensate for on the collective front and we have shown that against Sunderland, Olympiacos and Aston Villa. Ozil was very influential in all these games but we’ve also shown that we have a very mature, mentally fantastic side.
"You do not do what we do at Olympiacos and then four days later at Villa without having exceptional guys on the mental front. That helps us sometimes, when you miss players, to get over the hurdle."
For all Leicester's heroics, Man City remain the bookies' favourites for the title.
|Arsenal have lost just one of their 18 Premier League home games against Manchester City (W11 D6 L1), but have won just one of the last six (W1 D4 L1) Manchester City have lost 22 Premier League games against Arsenal, their joint-most defeats against any opponent (along with Chelsea) There have been five red cards in the last five Premier League matches between Man City and Arsenal at the Emirates|
But Manuel Pellegrini's star-studded side have stuttered at times this season, lacking their usual solidity without captain Vincent Kompany. And, unusually for them, City have failed to score in three consecutive away games.
That's partly down to the absence of Sergio Aguero - who should return at the Emirates. And it's partly because David Silva, City's creative hub, has been feeling his way back to fitness and form after injury. If he clicks tonight, Arsenal will have problems.
"I think David Silva is key because he is a provider in the final third," said Wenger.
"He is a player who gets out of tricky situations, of very tight situations, and still delivers the good pass. He brings people in front of him alive and he can score goals. I believe he’s a great player."
FROM THE ARCHIVES
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