Reasons why City might embarrass Arsenal at the Etihad, again

LONDON —  

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. How many times do you have to hear that before realizing that it’s complete garbage?

Especially if you’re Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and two more of your players — Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy — have succumbed to medium-term injuries in advance of a trip to Manchester City, who have actually strengthened by adding Wilfried Bony to a strike force already boasting Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and (at least for the moment, though things may change before the January transfer window closes) Stefan Jovetic.

Wenger, as ever, keeps calm on the exterior and expresses confidence in his squad. Yet Manchester City beat Arsenal 6-3 at the Etihad Stadium on the way to winning the Barclays Premier League title last season and another big defeat is surely possible this weekend (live, Sunday, 11 a.m. ET) if Manuel Pellegrini’s men are in the mood to take full advantage of the recurrent flaccidity of Wenger’s defense, particularly when it comes to facing the top sides away from home.

Arteta and Debuchy will be out for three months each, the experienced midfielder because of an ankle operation and the former Newcastle defender with a dislocated shoulder, the latter becoming yet another casualty of the club’s rivalry with Stoke, whose Marko Arnautovic shoved him during a recent game. And so we await Wenger’s response in the market. So far, he has engaged talks for 17-year-old midfielder, Krystian Bielik, from Legia Warsaw and something a little more urgent is clearly needed. He promises to be active — until the end of the month if necessary.

But in all probability it is too late to save much from Arsenal’s season. There are only two serious candidates for the Premier title — City and Chelsea — and even Wenger cannot believe that his team will get much further in the UEFA Champions League (though they should overcome Monaco in the Round of 16). The FA Cup is worth winning but, as Arsenal have discovered since their day of joy at Wembley eight months ago, it is hardly a reliable indicator of upward mobility, as the fate of the previous winners, Wigan Athletic, would further emphasize.

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Indeed, Arsenal might soon be in close combat with Liverpool and possibly local rivals Tottenham for the fourth spot and that Champions League place they have come to take for granted. To Wenger’s credit, Manchester United are among those who have had to take an unwanted break from dining at Europe’s top table. Liverpool have a winnable game at Aston Villa this weekend and, if they do take all three points, Arsenal will start against City just one ahead of last season’s runners-up.

The threat from Spurs is even more acute. By beating Sunderland at White Hart Lane, Mauricio Pocchetino’s men provisionally moved ahead of Arsenal, leaving Wenger’s men with the requirement to win on the ground of the champions to return to fourth.

So how have Arsenal got into this state? They have, after all, been stimulated by the instant and spectacular success of one of the biggest summer signings, Alexis Sanchez — and Danny Welbeck hasn’t done badly either. They can still be handsome on their day. But they are so inconsistent and part of the explanation must be the injuries that have prevented Wenger from settling his side in the manner exemplified by Chelsea’s largely excellent campaign under Jose Mourinho.

It’s hardly an original thing to say, for Arsenal’s injury record has been frustrating the fans for a few years now despite Wenger’s decision to hire Germany’s American fitness coach, Shad Forsyth in the prelude to this season. All clubs suffer injuries but Arsenal still suffer more than their competitors. Arteta and Debuchy apart, they are missing record buy Mesut Ozil and fellow midfielder Jack Wilshere, along with Welbeck (fallen to the curse of the Emirates just months after his switch from Old Trafford) and, of course, the almost forgotten Abou Diaby, with whom Wenger displays the patience of a saint. Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs are struggling for full fitness and the one man who seems always be ready for action, Per Mertesacker, is playing so poorly on occasion as to suggest that, in other circumstances, he would be dropped.

It’s not at all what was envisaged when Wenger’s men gleefully ended the club’s trophy drought last May. And yet they cling to hope and the talisman Sanchez, who has performed so brilliantly that, in some quarters, the visit to City is being seen as a showdown between the Chilean and Aguero.

"There are some other great players but Sanchez and Aguero are two of the best performing since the start of the season," Wenger told reporters on Friday. "Aguero has been less consistent because he’s been injured more — in the last year he has suffered from being a bit in and out — but of course he is a world-class player. Alexis is full of energy, full of enthusiasm as well. What everyone admires about him is his game is always full of enthusiasm, a desire to do well, to take people on and fight to get the ball back. It’s fantastic and it’s infectious."

In any case, it seems anything but a fair fight given the wealth of back-up to Aguero, who, along with Bony, will be licking his lips. And you can’t blame City. Even with Arteta or Debuchy, Manchester City would have been hot favorites given last season’s shellacking.

"The history will not play a big part in this game," the Arsenal manager told his cub’s website. "It’s the performance of the day that will play the biggest part and the only important part. Let’s focus on going there and give ourselves a chance to win by putting a great performance in."

Although Arsenal haven’t been killed, they are weakened. It could be another embarrassment.