Last Sunday had the potential to change everything in the Premier League title race. Instead, it changed nothing.
Arsenal ended the weekend as they started it: five points clear of Manchester City with a game in hand.
Mikel Arteta’s men took seven points from consecutive matches against third-placed Newcastle United, fifth-placed Tottenham and fourth-placed Manchester United.
They have passed the various tests left before them and maintained a healthy lead over City.
But they still have not played City themselves this season. That will change on Friday – just not in the Premier League.
The FA Cup fourth-round draw paired England’s best two teams, providing a warm-up at the Etihad Stadium for their Emirates Stadium league clash in February.
These coming encounters are likely to bring more pressure for Arteta and Arsenal, who are without a title since 2004 and unfamiliar with such high-stakes matches of late.
The manager perhaps has a decision to make then on how to approach this cup tie – both in terms of his personnel and their approach.
When Arsenal exited the EFL Cup at home to Brighton and Hove Albion in early November, they did so with a team showing 10 changes to the line-up from their prior league win at Chelsea.
Dat Guy @DannyWelbeck back at the Emirates and back in the goals! pic.twitter.com/TnO42UtnC9
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) November 10, 2022
But does Arteta want to shuffle the pack again here and give the upper hand to City ahead of a far more important game in three weeks’ time?
Speaking on Wednesday, Arteta weighed up the merits of cup progress – “that gives you more momentum, more confidence and prepares you better for the next match,” he said – but he was also certain the league and cup matches would be “two very, very different games”.
That was the case in Arsenal’s double-winning campaign of 2001-02, when the Gunners beat eventual Premier League runners-up Liverpool at this stage of the FA Cup. That blood-and-thunder cup tie followed a fortnight after a tepid league draw.
Arsene Wenger praised the “outstanding” mental fortitude of his side, who were second at that point but did not lose another domestic match all season.
It was one of 16 examples – across 13 ties – in the Premier League era of the teams who finished first and second meeting in the FA Cup, EFL Cup or Champions League in the same season.
Although Arsenal’s win against Liverpool was one of only seven victories for the league champions in those 16 attempts, another was the Gunners’ round five win against Chelsea two years later, which was followed in their very next match by three points at Stamford Bridge that took them seven clear at the top.
Thanks for the memories, Jose Antonio Reyes
We will never forget you. pic.twitter.com/drgNVhDQBn
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) June 1, 2019
Some consolation saw the Blues eliminate Arsenal from the Champions League later that season – a two-legged quarter-final tie around which Wenger’s men stuttered in the league but clung to their unbeaten record.
In those cases, it appeared Arsenal benefited from getting a good look at their rivals in the first game before winning the second, precisely as Arteta suggested.
Meanwhile, the fear of losing momentum is understandable. Arsenal have played twice more against top-two rivals in the FA Cup and lost twice to Manchester United, who went on to take the title in both 1998-99 and 2002-03.
Such is the feel-good factor at Emirates Stadium right now, it is difficult to imagine defeat away to City with a much-changed team would dent Arsenal’s confidence too significantly.
But heading home with a win on Friday would surely only increase belief in this side further.
Given the eight-day gap before the next Premier League match, Arteta – whose only major silverware to date was the FA Cup in 2019-20 – might be wise to consider this a helpful test rather than an unwanted distraction.
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