By George Ankers
One of the clearest signals that Manchester City had what it took to see off the likes of Liverpool and Chelsea to win the Premier League came on December 14, 2013. In a season not short on drama, City’s 6-3 pummeling of Arsenal was right up there with the most awesome matches of the season.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side had been six points behind the Gunners coming into the game but a ruthless attacking performance made plain that they had the teeth for success – and, sure enough, by the time that the top flight pulled down the curtain on 2013-14, City were seven above Arsene Wenger’s men.
On Sunday, they will meet again at Wembley to contest the Community Shield, thanks to Arsenal’s triumph in the FA Cup – so, eight months later, how do the two sides compare to that lunchtime in Manchester?
Title warning | Goal's match report and player ratings from the Etihad Stadium
There has been no flood of activity either in or out at either club this summer but significant changes have been made, nonetheless, to each’s line-up – including one standout deal that affects both sides.
Though Arsenal tried their best to convince him to sign a new contract, Bacary Sagna could be the only player from their December meeting to start this match on the other side after his free transfer to the Etihad Stadium.
Whether or not the Frenchman will be No.1 ahead of Pablo Zabaleta this season is uncertain but the Argentine’s extended break after his World Cup exploits will see him miss this date at Wembley. For the Gunners, it could be the latest awkward reunion with a former player against a title rival.
The first name on the City teamsheet will certainly be different. Though the Arsenal game was part of his moment in the spotlight last term, Costel Pantilimon has moved onto Sunderland and Joe Hart, the man displaced due to poor form last winter, is back as the man in possession of the gloves after a strong end to the season. He now faces new competition, however, in former Malaga star Willy Caballero, a favourite of Pellegrini. Good form will be necessary from the start.
Hart, though, should start at Wembley and could yet do so behind Eliaquim Mangala at centre-back. The Porto star is on the verge of finally completing his long-awaited £31.8 million move to City and, if he arrives in time for the Community Shield, would arguably represent an upgrade on either Martin Demichelis or captain Vincent Kompany.
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The attacking force that he would be facing will be necessarily different – though overall arguably stronger – than that day in December. At the Etihad, Theo Walcott was Arsenal’s sole serious threat as the England international tried to drag his underperforming colleagues through with two excellent goals.
Walcott, though, will not be available as he works on the final stage of his recovery from a cruciate ligament injury that has kept him out since January. His place on the right is expected to be taken up by Alexis Sanchez, Wenger’s marquee summer signing and the cause of huge optimism at the Emirates Stadium ever since his arrival. Though his long-term future may be at centre forward, Alexis’s pace and trickery will prove a huge test for whichever of Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov (likely the former) is fielded on City’s left flank.
Partly thanks to Sagna, Arsenal will have different faces at full-back to those who lined up in December. On the right, Mathieu Debuchy comes in for his fellow Frenchman, while Kieran Gibbs can be expected to start ahead of Nacho Monreal. Given that Debuchy started for France at the World Cup this summer, one could argue that the Gunners will this time have the advantage in these positions.
They may need to make that count as the centre of their defence will be more vulnerable. Laurent Koscielny is fit and available but Per Mertesacker’s post-World Cup break will surely see him out and Thomas Vermaelen is, for all intents and purposes, out of the door. New signing Calum Chambers is likely to keep his place at the less familiar centre-back position after his £16m switch from Southampton – it will be a huge test for the teenager.
At least he will be facing a City strikeforce shorn of its biggest star. Sergio Aguero, who predictably broke the deadlock in December, is out injured – though not the same problem that saw him withdrawn just after half-time in the 6-3. Alvaro Negredo, another of City’s scorers, faces months more on the sidelines. The pressure is on Edin Dzeko to continue his decisive end-of-season form and for Stevan Jovetic to step up after an anonymous first year in English football.
Between Arsenal’s patchy defence and City’s patchy attack, then, the two teams may be hard to split. In midfield, though, looks like being the most crucial mismatch.
Fernando is Pellegrini’s other summer acquisition and the ex-Porto man is set to add even more strength to the middle of the park alongside compatriot Fernandinho. His specialised defensive prowess would turn what was a powerful base last term into a veritable fortification that consequently allows talisman Yaya Toure to push further forward and bear down on goal.
In contrast, Arsenal’s midfield remains somewhat fragile. A move for Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin would be the ideal defensive reinforcement for which the Gunners are crying out but the Saints continue to dig in their heels while Tottenham are the suitors pushing hardest – Wenger looks set to miss out again. With the weaker Mikel Arteta and indisciplined Jack Wilshere poised to play in the centre, City’s Brazilian axis could be enough to block out the Londoners’ machinations entirely.
The Gunners have bright spots in similar positions – Aaron Ramsey is back and ended 2013-14 strongly after injury interrupted a marvellous campaign, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has looked bright in pre-season. But it is that base of midfield where they clearly lag behind the likes of City. Mathieu Flamini couldn’t cut it against them in December and Arsenal have only further to go now to match them as they did then.
In that struggle to find a complete midfield, as with the shuffling of full-backs and likely restructure around Alexis as they key man further forward, Wenger is still building a team, one which should end up looking quite different from that 6-3 thrashing. Pellegrini is simply refining what was already a strong unit.
While we might not get another eye-popper, it does make City favourites to win once again.
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