Manchester City return to the scene of last season’s darkest hour, facing an even worse scenario than their Easter Sunday loss at the Emirates in April 2012.
A 1-0 defeat saw City drop eight points behind their hated rivals at the top of the Premier League with just six games to go. It was a bitter irony that on a day of profound religious symbolism, far from being resurrected, Mancini’s men had seemingly been crucified.
Their timing may have been a bit off, but as we all know the resurrection did duly take place one month and six days later when St Sergio intervened in such divine fashion in the 94th minute.
Nine months on and just one paltry PL away defeat later – an amazing statistic when you think about it – Manchester City know anything less than their first league win at Arsenal since 1975, will hand Manchester United a potential eight, or even, 10 point advantage this time around.
The prospect of a double digit points deficit is wholly unpalatable to even the most rabid of City fans, who would be forced to question whether their heroes in Sky Blue could bridge such a gaping divide.
History and circumstance are most definitely against City today. They have endured the agony of 27 league matches without a win at Arsenal – their worst record against any side in the modern era.
Put into perspective, the last time City took maximum points from that particular area of North London Asa Hartford, Joe Royle and Rodney Marsh scored City’s goals in a 3-2 win at Highbury. It’s been a fair old while since that trio last put on their playing boots.
Fast forward to the modern day and City go into a critical fixture minus their top striker and midfield heartbeat. Sergio Aguero is absent nursing a mercifully pulled, as opposed to torn, hamstring injury, while Yaya Toure is away at the infernal African Cup of Nations for the second time in a year.
Ex-Gunner Samir Nasri is serving the last of his three match suspension, while Micah Richards and Jack Rodwell are still on the injured list.
Better news comes in the shape of the potential availability of full backs Aleksander Kolarov and Maicon, albeit Mancini seems to have found a settled back line in Kompany, Clichy, Zabaleta and perm one from either Lescott or Nastasic.
Aguero’s absence is a massive blow, but this is a City side that has harvested 10 goals in three games with eight of those coming from sources other than the superb Argentine striker.
Arsenal themselves are prone to admirable interpretations of Jekyll & Hyde this season. Fast flowing and free scoring, Arsene Wenger’s side can appear almost unstoppable. Alternatively they can look as inspiring as two-day old porridge.
Amid all this talk of resurrections and coming back to life, it is perhaps hoping beyond hope that this afternoon could present Mario Balotelli with a stage for dramatic redemption.
It was Mad Mario last time out at Arsenal on a one-man self destruction mission, accomplished brilliantly with reckless challenges and attitude aplenty before the inevitable red card.
Many City supporters have tired with the petulant talent from Palermo’s antics on the field – let alone his alleged off the field activities.
If selected and if he’s man enough to realise the imperatives of the occasion, Mario could still yet endear himself to his detractors. But if they hold their breath for the erratic Italian to deliver a polished show of professionalism, the blue mooners could soon be blue in the face with respiratory irregularities.
City haven’t scored on their last five visits to Arsenal, the last goal coming from DaMarcus Beasley in a 3-1 defeat for a Stuart Pearce select XI in April 2007. If City can get ahead it bodes well as they have won 10 and drawn one, with no defeats, when they have scored first this season.
Joe Hart is in line for his 200th City appearance and a ninth clean sheet this season would be a fitting way to celebrate. He once again sits behind the best defence in the PL, but faces an Arsenal side whose 40 goals amount to more than when Robin Van Persie led the line last year.
A rejuvenated Theo Walcott playing down the middle represents Arsenal’s most potent weapon. His alarming speed could see a recall for Matija Nastasic, with the slower more powerful Lescott not best suited to a quick ground game.
Not a fixture given to goals in abundance, Roberto Mancini will be more than delighted if his team can re-write history with a 1-0 win. He showed no signs of cracking when the easter eggs were in fashion in April – he’ll be equally resolute this time out.
David Walker (Twitter: djwskyblu)