Sunday’s Premier League trip to Manchester City could have a decisive impact on Arsenal’s future, according to manager Arsene Wenger.
When the fixtures were released last June, City versus Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium in the penultimate match of the season appeared to have the makings of a potential title decider.
But both teams have faltered despite boasting richly gifted squads, forced to look on as Leicester City secured the title at Tottenham’s expense on Monday.
The upshot is Manuel Pellegrini’s final home match as City manager will have a pivotal say on whether each team will take part in the Champions League next season – City having bowed out at the semi-final stage this time around at Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Arsenal are three points better off than their fourth-placed hosts and Manchester United sit four points further back with a game in hand – versus West Ham, who remain in the equation themselves.
Victory would secure a return to European football’s top table for Arsenal, something Wenger has never knowingly undersold.
He told a pre-match news conference: “We have regrets. It’s difficult for me to compare with City. They are a team who is expected to win the league every year. They might be in a similar position.
“We have not given up hope on getting second. We will fight to the end.
“It is still an important game because part of the responsibility of being professional is to prepare the future, and the future of Arsenal football club depends on this game. It is that big.”
Wenger will be without Per Mertesacker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the rest of the season due to respective hamstring and knee injuries. England midfielder Oxlade-Chamberlain will also miss Euro 2016.
Santi Cazorla, a star performer in Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Eastlands last season, may return after his five-month knee injury lay-off, while fellow midfielder Jack Wilshere will hope for more action having been an unused substitute in the 1-0 win over Norwich City.
Pellegrini’s decision to make eight changes in last Sunday’s abject 4-2 defeat at Southampton was not rewarded as City rarely threatened in their meek midweek defeat in Madrid.
Captain Vincent Kompany suffered the fifth setback of his injury-plagued campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu and he joins playmaker David Silva (hamstring) and full-backs Pablo Zabaleta (calf) and Aleksandar Kolarov (knock) on the sidelines.
“Maybe Arsene plays the way he played in the last two games against us,” said Pellegrini, whose side lost each of those encounters. “They let us have possession and they defended.
“I expect us to recover our attacking potential, which was our problem against Real Madrid. I hope that on Sunday we can continue being a scoring team.”
City announced in February that Pep Guardiola would replace Pellegrini at the end of this season and Wenger paid tribute to his outgoing counterpart, who will depart English football with the 2013-14 Premier League title and two League Cups to his name.
“I believe he has shown great dignity and great human qualities during his time here,” the Frenchman added. “He is respected by everybody in the Premier League and certainly by myself.”
Key Opta stats
– Manchester City have lost 23 Premier League games against Arsenal, more than against any other side.
– Mesut Ozil provided the 14th and 15th of his 18 Premier League assists this season when Arsenal beat City 2-1 at Emirates Stadium in December.
– Arsenal have lost one of their past eight away games in the league, drawing five.
– City striker Kelechi Iheanacho’s 86.9 minutes per-goal rate is the best in Premier League history for any player with three or more goals.
– Arsenal’s England forward Danny Welbeck has equalled his Premier League goal tally of four from last season, but in 10 appearances as opposed to 25.