As injuries ease, Arsenal and Manchester City could provide us with one of the best Premier League title battles in years, writes Mark Holmes.
INJURIES MAY DECIDE TITLE
Arsenal were certainly not at their best in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Stoke City, but a point at a stadium where Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have all lost to nil this season is not to be sniffed at.
Certainly not when you consider that Arsene Wenger was without two of his best players in Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
It is worth pointing out, though, that Manchester City were without Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero the day they lost at the Britannia Stadium. They have also at times had to do without David Silva, who was absent in three of their five defeats in the Premier League so far this season.
We have a habit in this country of making wild judgements on the back of one-off results, ruling teams in and out of the title race depending on how they have performed that particular day. But the reality is that neither Arsenal, City nor any other club in the Premier League has a strong enough squad not to suffer in the absence of two or three key players.
The exciting thing for us neutrals is that, finally, we might be about to see these two title challengers go on a run of games with close to their strongest XIs available. Aguero is back and scoring again for City, who remain without Kompany but will soon welcome back the crucial Fernandinho, while Sanchez and Ozil should both be available for Arsenal’s game against Chelsea next weekend.
Some may find it disrespectful not to mention Leicester City or Tottenham at this point, but neither side will be able to keep pace with Arsenal and City if they can keep their key players for the rest of the season.
And neither of those could cope as well as Arsenal or City have were they to lose Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mazhred or Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld. Leicester are certainly not in a false position, while Spurs have been the Premier League’s most impressive side of late, but the depth and quality available to Arsenal and City will eventually tell.
There have been suggestions that this season’s Premier League is weaker than usual, but the overall standard is certainly up, and a fully-fit Arsenal versus a fully-fit Manchester City could yet turn out to be one of the best title races in years.
ARSENAL V MAN CITY – WHO IS BEST?
Just for fun, it is interesting to compare the two club’s strongest XIs in a bid to work out which one might come out on top in a parallel universe of no injuries, fatigue or suspensions.
Petr Cech vs Joe Hart: Cech’s performance at Stoke on Sunday undoubtedly earned Arsenal a point. It was not just his saves that made the difference, it was his confidence in commanding his area. Hart is an excellent shot-stopper but is not yet at that level. Verdict: Arsenal
Hector Bellerin vs Bacary Sagna: Pablo Zabaleta started for City against Crystal Palace on Saturday, but Sagna seems to be Pellegrini’s preferred choice these days. He is certainly a threat going forward, but defensively he is not fully trustworthy. Bellerin is the better all-round full-back. Verdict: Arsenal
Laurent Koscielny & Per Mertesacker vs Vincent Kompany & Nicolas Otamendi: Koscielny and Kompany are the Premier League’s two best central defenders, and the latter’s continued absence could yet prove crucial in the title race. Mertesacker, meanwhile, is often ridiculed yet arguably more reliable than any of City’s centre-backs, but Kompany alongside either Otamendi or Eliaquim Mangala edges out the Arsenal pairing in this particular observer’s opinion. Verdict: Man City
Nacho Monreal vs Aleksandar Kolarov: Like Sagna, Kolarov is excellent on the attack but not the most convincing of defenders. Arsenal now have two full-backs equally adept at both ends of the pitch. Verdict: Arsenal
Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla vs Fernandinho and Yaya Toure: This is where the water is muddied slightly as Aaron Ramsey has thrown his hat into the ring for a regular role in central midfield, while Jack Wilshere could also eventually come into contention. But sticking with the most common pairings of this season, Fernandinho has been outstanding, while Toure is not what he was but still provides crucial moments of quality on a consistent basis. Coquelin and Cazorla’s partnership was a revelation, but they couldn’t cope with the City duo on top form. Verdict: Man City
Aaron Ramsey vs Kevin De Bruyne: Again, Arsenal fans may argue that Joel Campbell is now the best choice on the right, but the likelihood is that he will make way once everybody is back fit. Whoever Wenger picks, nobody can hold a candle to De Bruyne, who has been outstanding in his first season back in the Premier League. Verdict: Man City
Mesut Ozil vs David Silva: This is undoubtedly the closest match up of the lot. Ozil’s exploits so far this season certainly far outweigh those of Silva, but the Spaniard on top form is as good as any No.10 in the world. Nobody could say with any great confidence that one is better than the other. Verdict: Draw
Alexis Sanchez vs Raheem Sterling: This on the other hand is a rather easier choice. Sterling has done OK since his big money move from Liverpool, but he has a long way to go until he can be mentioned in the same breath as Alexis. Verdict: Arsenal
Olivier Giroud vs Sergio Aguero: There is very little between these two teams, but Aguero could well be the difference in this season’s title race. Giroud is a fine, underrated, striker, but he is not among the best in the world. Aguero is. If he can stay fit between now and the end of the season, City will take some stopping.