Manchester City know Arsenal clash is the real beginning of their title defence
Premier League: Manchester City v Arsenal, Sunday September 23, 4pm (Sky)
The last time these two clubs met, it seemed Manchester City were as far away from being title winners as they had been for most of the previous 43 years.
Mikel Arteta’s late long-range strike settled the clash at the Emirates in April, and Mario Balotelli’s even later red card left City in tatters and Roberto Mancini allegedly facing the sack.
A little over a month later, Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp goal against QPR delivered the title to an almost disbelieving City faithful, their club having reined in an eight-point lead held by their neighbours United to take the crown on goal difference.
The fanciful dreams of the club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, had become reality. His financial muscle had turned them from perennial no-hopers into the richest and, as the league table never lies, best team in the land.
Now the challenge is to maintain that success, to turn a one-off triumph into dominance. And although Mancini complained long and hard about a perceived lack of financial input over the summer, there is little doubt that City will compete for the top prize again.
Winning back-to-back titles is something that has proved beyond Arsenal in the modern era, but while City may have lost out to their bitter rivals in the chase for Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, their summer investments were late but notable.
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The capture of �16m midfielder Javi Garcia from Benfica was their major purchase, but those of veteran Brazilian right-back Maicon and the highly-rated Serbian centre-back Matija Nastasic from Fiorentina have further bolstered an already hugely impressive squad.
Interestingly Mancini also added two English players, Jack Rodwell from Everton and Swansea’s Scott Sinclair for a combined �20m. It was not really a quiet summer at all at the Etihad, whatever Mancini believes, as their total spend passed the �50m mark.
Their start to the season mirrors Arsenal’s with two draws and two wins, although the home successes over Southampton and QPR have both had their nervy moments. Draws at Liverpool and last weekend at Stoke are far from disastrous results.
The feeling remains, however, that City are not quite firing this season, a view reinforced by Tuesday’s defeat at the Bernabeu in their Champions League opener against Real Madrid.
Last season’s group-stage exit in that tournament was the big disappointment of City’s season. Winning the title certainly made up for it, but with the kind of money invested from Abu Dhabi, the owners both expect and demand success on all fronts.
That will not preoccupy Mancini this weekend. They returned from Spain in the early hours of yesterday and, like Arsenal, have four clear days to prepare for Sunday’s encounter.
Second-guessing Mancini’s line-up from his array of stars is an often futile game, but one thing is certain: Yaya Toure will aim to be the dominant force in the centre of midfield.
The Ivorian, who once had a trial at Arsenal to join his brother Kolo, emerged as their key man last season, even more so than the mercurial trio of forwards, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and the rejuvenated Carlos Tevez.
It is unlikely but possible all three of those will play, although Mancini may prefer former Gunner Samir Nasri or James Milner in one of the wide positions and perhaps Balotelli up front.
That is the kind of luxury available to Mancini. Last season City won this fixture 1-0 to reinforce their title credentials. This season they no longer need to convince anybody of that.
City have not been at their best yet, and lost for the time this season in Madrid on Tuesday. But they have learned over the last couple of seasons how to win the big games like this one, and the sheer weight of their attacking options should see them narrowly prevail.
Prediction: City 2 Arsenal 1