The stage has been set for a straight shootout between Arsenal and Manchester City for the English Premier League title and that scenario will become more of a reality if they win their respective derby matches this weekend.
Don’t be so sure on that happening, though.
Indeed, by Sunday night, the number of teams potentially involved in the title race could easily have grown to five heading into the second half of the season.
First up is the Manchester derby on Saturday, when City — looking increasingly unconvincing as the season progresses — faces a Manchester United team riding its best run of results in four years.
Eight straight wins in all competitions. Nine straight wins at Old Trafford. United, no longer burdened with the baggage that came with having Cristiano Ronaldo in the squad, is brimming with confidence under Erik ten Hag and out to make amends for an embarrassing 6-3 loss to City in early October.
Closing the round of weekend games is the north London derby on Sunday when Arsenal — five points clear of second-placed City — heads to fifth-placed Tottenham, for whom in-form striker Harry Kane has another scoring record in his sights.
Kane has netted four times in four games since returning from the World Cup and needs one goal to tie with the late Jimmy Greaves as Tottenham’s leading scorer on 266. No player has scored more in the derby than Kane with his 14. In fact, no player has scored more goals against Arsenal than Kane since the Premier League started in 1992.
If Arsenal and City win, they’ll leave United and Tottenham in their wake, with only third-placed Newcastle — which hosts Fulham on Sunday — in touching distance.
If they lose, then the top five would suddenly be separated by eight points.
On current form, City is the team that should be most fearful.
Back-to-back wins over Chelsea last week, in the league then the FA Cup, seemed to put City back on track, but a loss to Southampton in the League Cup on Wednesday not only ended the team’s hunt for a quadruple of trophies but raised questions about the strength in depth of Pep Guardiola’s squad in certain areas.
City has dropped points in two of its last four league games — both at home, in a 2-1 loss to Brentford and a 1-1 draw with Everton — and, currently, does not look like the machine that can go on a long winning run to take control of a title race, as Guardiola’s teams have done in the past.
Worryingly, a frail-looking City didn’t even have a shot on target against Southampton, despite sending on Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland in the second half.
City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan said their self-belief took a hit.
“This United side is probably stronger than ever, at least in the recent past,” Gundogan said, “so they are full of confidence, will play great football and we’ll need a much better performance than (against Southampton).”
No Man United manager has reached 20 victories at the club quicker than Ten Hag — he has achieved it in 27 games — but the recent winning run should be put into context given the opponents United has faced, including two lower-league teams in the cups and four of the current bottom six in the Premier League.
City represents a massive step up in quality, though fourth-placed United has already beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham at home this season.
Indeed, that remains Arsenal’s only loss in the league in what has been the fifth-best start to a Premier League after 17 games.
Losing Gabriel Jesus to a knee injury hasn’t slowed Arsenal, especially with captain and playmaker Martin Odegaard in such great form. As it stands, Odegaard and Haaland — two Norwegians — might be leading the race to be the league player of the season.
Tottenham has won the last three north London derbies played at its home stadium but did lose there against Aston Villa on Jan. 1.
Any dropped points by Arsenal would raise the stakes even further given its next game in the league is at home to United.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.