As Arsenal take on Manchester City, is this a title showdown already?
Managers try to play down importance of clash between sides most capable of winning league
Both managers dismiss it, but Manchester City’s trip to Arsenal on Monday is being billed as a clash between the two teams most capable of lifting the Premier League title.
Leicester City’s 3-2 win at Everton guaranteed that they will top the table on Christmas Day, but amid doubts over their staying power and with other contenders floundering, Arsenal and City remain the favourites.
Leicester have a five-point lead over Arsenal, with City a point further back in third place, and the London club’s manager Arsene Wenger knows how important is it for his side to take points from their rivals.
“We have really established a good run so for us it's important to continue that,” he said.
“It is a massive game. When we play at home you want to win because we are ambitious and we feel we have the chance to come out in a strong position after Christmas.
“It will be a very tight game because if you look at the numbers since the start of the season, offensively and defensively the numbers are very close.
“Manchester City has huge individual potential with David Silva and Sergio Aguero coming back and so we will need a top, top-level team performance.”
Silva recently returned to action for City after two months out with an ankle injury and Aguero could make his comeback at the Emirates Stadium after missing four matches with a heel problem.
Wenger, meanwhile, is hopeful that Alexis Sanchez will be fit to play after a hamstring injury, raising the appetising prospect that both teams will be at full strength in attack.
They are both bereft elsewhere, however, with Arsenal missing midfielders Jack Wilshere, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, as well as forward Danny Welbeck.
City captain Vincent Kompany is not ready to play despite having returned to training following a calf complaint, and Fernando, Pablo Zabaleta and Samir Nasri are also currently unavailable.
City made a storming start to the season, but have hit a patch of inconsistent form, winning only three of their last seven league games.
They have already lost four times this season, including 4-1 drubbings by Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, but manager Manuel Pellegrini rejected the notion that another setback against Arsenal would be fatal.
“It's not a decisive game as after this we have to play 21 games more,” said the Chilean. “It’s important to try to be the best team from the first round, to play against a team with one point more.
“It’s a game of six points, to win three and to take three off a rival. We must consider Leicester – they are still top of the table. United are just a few points behind us.
“Tottenham can be involved, so can Liverpool and Crystal Palace. It’s impossible just to think there are two teams involved in the title.
“We have to play five of the next six away. It's a good target to return to clean sheets and to advance in positions. Playing away is always a bit more difficult.”
Arsenal were routed 6-3 by City at the Etihad Stadium two years ago, but they came out on top last season, sweeping to a 3-0 Community Shield victory and producing a smash-and-grab 2-0 win in Manchester in January.
It was seen as an uncharacteristic Arsenal win -- one built on patience, defensive discipline and clinical counter-attacking -- and Wenger believes the experience will stand his team in good stead.
“It was a needed step for our team,” he said. “It was not enough, but it was the first step, which was certainly vital to strengthen the belief of our team.
“When you have never done it, people can tell you 'You aren't good enough, you aren't good enough,' but when you have done it, you know you can do it and that strengthens you. Of course it is important.”