When Manchester City stuck six past the then table-topping Gunners in the run up to Christmas, it was all about goals, goals and more goals as the Sky Blues homed in on the quickest 100 scored in the Premier League era.
It’s been a season festooned with 133 so far, 79 in the league and a further 54 in cup competitions.
With nine games still to play, albeit with some very tough trips to Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton, there’s every chance the sharpshooting City slickers will surpass the 150 mark.
Goals obviously win games but, there’s a football adage that title success is forged on steely resistance – strong and consistent defending.
Yes, it’s a romantic notion to go out and be proclaimed champions on the basis of a ‘We’ll score more than you, even if we concede three…’ philosophy, but ultimately it flounders.
To the untrained eye, Manuel Pellegrini might appear to subscribe to the latter, but closer scrutiny reveals the ‘Engineer’ fully embraces the merits of solid defensive foundations.
The number ‘6’ could, once again, have a major bearing on this fixture – and not just because Pellegrini regards the match up as a proverbial ‘six pointer’, just as it was last December.
If City manage a ‘shutout’ at The Emirates, it will be their sixth consecutive Premier League clean sheet – a new club record – and one that contradicts the early season leaks at the likes of Cardiff and Villa.
Having conceded 27 times, City have the second best defence in the PL (only Chelsea (23) have held a tighter backline) and it’s no coincidence that the miserly approach has seen City reinstated as title favourites.
Back to his outstanding best, Joe Hart has faced – and overcome – genuine adversity for the first time in his City career, while the much maligned Martin Demichelis is suddenly being appreciated as a hugely experienced and, increasingly competent, partner to Vincent Kompany.
Etihad terrace humour had ‘MDM’ labelled as Martin ‘Demichaos’ not so long ago, but the veteran Argentine is transforming himself into something of a cult hero at present.
He remains dangerously and heart-stoppingly unpredictable, but he is now ticking the boxes and showing why Pellegrini has persevered in selecting him ahead of Joleon Lescott.
That’s not to say he should be first choice next season – he shouldn’t – as City splash the cash in the summer transfer window, but no-one will begrudge him if he has a PL champion’s medal around his neck come May 11.
As for City’s Captain Fantastic Kompany, he is undoubtedly the biggest single influence on the team and probably the best central defender in the world.
He, along with the legend that is Pablo Zabaleta, form the cornerstone of a defence that has ‘synched’ at a crucial time with the title within City’s grasp.
The left back berth tends to get shared between a much improved Aleksander Kolarov and ex-Gooner Gael Clichy, with the PL appearances just about even stevens.
Lescott – a definite departure from the Etihad in the summer – has played his part in recent weeks. He’s highly unlikely to make England’s World Cup squad, but if you’re leaving you may as well go out in style and Joleon coverts a CV that features two PL winner’s medals.
City’s defensive unit hasn’t exactly been overworked this past week.
Bottom of the table Fulham posed virtually no attacking threat, whereas the only offensive element Manchester Dis-united could conjure up came in the shape of the vile, spittle-producing microphone head, Marouane Fellaini.
A mis-firing Arsenal know they have to beat City to have any chance of maintaining their spluttering title aspirations. Bedevilled by injuries, Arsene Wenger cannot call upon Walcott, Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshire, Monreal or Koscielny.
Giroud, Cazole, Oxlade Chamberlain-Gibbs (!), Podolski, Arteta and the emerging Sanogo still pose a threat, so Pellegrini is absolutely correct in saying City will have to play at their best to take maximum points.
It’s a big ask for Wenger’s team who have endured a demoralising week, losing 6-0 at Chelsea and dropping points at home to Swansea. Historically Arsenal away has been a very tough trip for City, with a 2-0 win in January 2013, as their only league victory in 37 years.
The present day reality is that it would be a major disappointment if City were not to repeat last season’s win. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster, but anything less than a win would immediately take City’s destiny out of their own hands if Chelsea continue winning.
Fears over the fitness of City’s creative magician, David Silva, seem to have been quelled, although it might be an idea to get a preservation order slapped on the Spanish maestro’s much punished ankles.
Sergio Aguero is still absent as he recovers from a hamstring injury, while the medics are still baffled by long-term casualty Matija Nastasic’s knee problem. Micah Richards and Dedryk Boyata are not in the squad as they work on fitness issues at Carrington.
Edin Dzeko will surely make his 100th Premier League appearance after his two-goal heroics at The Swamp on Tuesday night. Arguably his best ever showing in City’s colours, the Bosnian has hit 40 PL goals in 99 appearances, 26 of them (65%) coming away from the Etihad.
If only Edin could apply himself, week in and week out, in the way he did at Old Trafford he would be a huge success. His goals-to-games ratio is impressive, but his goals-to-chances ratio is far less.
He remains an enigma and, like Lescott, could be leaving City in the summer with interest mooted from Inter Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
It’s amazing that Yaya Toure has emerged as City’s leading PL scorer with 17 so far, 11 of them coming in the last 14 games. He’s scored 21 in all competitions and Arsene Wenger still rues the day Yaya opted to play in the Ukraine rather than Arsenal, in the earlier part of his career.
One player who did play for the Gooners is expecting a barrage of hate this evening from the home fans. Samir Nasri was vilified by Arsenal fans who claimed the French playmaker was a mercenary when he joined City three seasons ago.
Finally producing the form that persuaded Roberto Mancini to spend £24m on him, the opinionated Frenchman has one PL medal with which to answer his critics. A second in sky blue colours, would render the ‘money-grabber’ label firmly redundant.
City’s rivalry with Arsenal has been stoked up in recent years by a steady stream of recruitment from London to Manchester. Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy and Nasri all migrated to the North West.
Transfer speculation continues to link defenders Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen with moves to the Etihad in the summer, so no thawing in the Emirates-Etihad relationship anytime soon.
Another element comes in the shape of six red cards in the last seven encounters. Tonight’s referee, Mike Dean, sent off City skipper Kompany in a dubious balancing act, having earlier dismissed Laurent Koscielny in the corresponding game last year. Kompany’s red card was later rescinded.
With Chelsea and Liverpool looking good for maximum points against Crystal Palace and Spurs, City need to match them stride for stride.
A City win this evening will be more significant than the stroll at Old Trafford and would make it a three-horse race for the PL finishing post.
By David Walker