Who will beat City?

THE CLASH between Arsenal and Manchester City on April 26 is now being classified as the great title decider. It probably will be, but it will still be too early for either set of fans to put out the bunting if their team wins at the Etihad Stadium. Whatever happens, both teams will be playing in the Champions League next season but for Arsenal, seeing their first Premier title since 2004 slip away will be hard to take, especially as they have been on top of the table for so long. The current run the Gunners are on is the longest without a league title since they started winning championships in 1931. 

Three draws on the bounce have, apparently, been Arsenal’s undoing, not defeats; their “collapse” is only looking that way because of who is chasing them. They’re right to be nervous, for since Pep Guardiola took over, Arsenal’s record has been abysmal against Manchester City. In 18 league and cup games, Arsenal have won just two, both in the FA Cup. City have won 15 and there’s been just one draw. 

Of the current Premier League, 13 have beaten Pep-era City at some point in the Premier League. Those that are still waiting for a sniff of three points are: Arsenal, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Fulham, Nottingham Forest and West Ham United. Of City’s last eight games, only Chelsea (with five league wins) are regular victors against the reigning champions. Guardiola has lost 34 Premier games in seven seasons and the club with the most wins against City is Tottenham with six. Manchester United have also won five and Liverpool four.  Twenty of the 34 have been at the hands of the so-called “Big six”, while the rest can be filed under “unexpected”.

In cup competitions, City seem to comfortably hurdle their way to the last four of the FA Cup every year, but only once (2018 versus Wigan), have they lost to a team outside the top half dozen. In the EFL Cup, City have won four of the last seven competitions and aside from a Manchester derby defeat in the fifth round of 2017, they were bundled out by the likes of West Ham and Southampton. 

In Europe, City have experienced a number of slip-ups, losing to Monaco, Olympique Lyonnaise and Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool tore them apart in 2018 and they misunderestimated Chelsea in 2021. They now they have the chance to avenge last season’s semi-final defeat against Real Madrid. Get past that and Guardiola could be on for the Champions League.

Indeed, it could be a treble for City, especially if they do win against Arsenal. The psychological damage that Mikel Arteta’s team could suffer if they lose may be very significant. City have been like a Pike waiting in the reeds for prey to come along and form part of their supper. The “experts” have been anticipating a City surge all through the campaign. 

The FA Cup final may not be as close as some people believe, but United have shown in the past that they know how to beat City. But they won’t need too much reminding that earlier this season, City trounced their neighbours 6-3, a result that seemed to flatter Erik ten Hag’s beleaguered men.

The Champions League specialists, Real Madrid, will be a substantial challenge for City, but on paper, City are currently stronger than the holders. Nevertheless, Real won’t give up their title cheaply and they cannot be written off. Real could be enduring a miserable time domestically, but there is something in their DNA which enables them to produce just enough in the Champions League.

The “treble” has been achieved nine times by seven clubs: Celtic (1967), Ajax (1972), PSV (1988), Manchester United (1999), Barcelona (2009 and 2015), Inter Milan (2010) and Bayern Munich (2013 and 2020). It is a formidable and near impossible task, yet five of the nine have been won since 2009, which may serve to underline the age of the uber-club. 

Can City do it? If any club is equipped to win the three major prizes, it is surely one with the financial resources and professionalism of Manchester City. Sceptics will, inevitably, attribute the success to the polarisation of the game and the quasi state-ownership of the club, but football remains a game of small margins – unless you have Erling Haaland in your line-up, that is. 

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