MANCHESTER, England (AP) — It is a measure of the standards set by Arsenal this season that a 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Anfield last week felt more like a loss.
Granted, the Premier League leader had gone 2-0 up after just 28 minutes and looked to be on course to move eight points clear at the top of the table. But a point at Liverpool was still better than any other team in the top four has managed this season, with Manchester City, Newcastle and Manchester United all beaten there this term.
It was the manner in which Arsenal surrendered victory that felt so costly, with Roberto Firmino scoring an 87th-minute equalizer that blew the title race wide open and potentially handed the advantage to second-place City.
City can cut Arsenal’s lead to three points when the defending champions play relegation-fighting Leicester on Saturday.
And with the top two due to face each other at Etihad Stadium on April 26, City can seize control of the battle to be crowned champions.
While the same can be said of Arsenal, the London club has lost on its last seven visits to City, including a 5-0 rout last season that piled the pressure on manager Mikel Arteta.
Arsenal kept faith with the Spaniard and that has been rewarded with an outstanding campaign this term that has put the Gunners within sight of a first league title for 19 years.
Yet, after the result at Anfield, City appears to be the team with the momentum, with Tuesday’s 3-0 win against Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals continuing an ominous run of form.
Pep Guardiola’s team has won nine games in a row in all competitions and remains in contention for a treble of trophies this season.
Erling Haaland has hit 45 goals already, while City has racked up a series of emphatic wins in recent weeks – putting seven past RB Leipzig in the Champions League and four past Liverpool.
It is a run that has left Arsenal with little room for error, which is why the draw against Liverpool could prove so damaging.
Arteta’s team has hardly put a foot wrong having led the way for the majority of the season.
Arsenal won nine of the first 10 league games of the campaign. It responded to February’s home loss to City by winning its next seven in the league.
That 100 percent run was ended at Anfield and suddenly its lead looks fragile ahead of Sunday’s London derby at West Ham.
It would feel cruel if those two dropped points prove decisive, given the consistency Arsenal has produced this term. But these are the standards required when going head-to-head with a trophy-winning machine like City.
In recent years it has been Liverpool that has counted the cost of trying to compete with City at the top.
Over the last four seasons City amassed a total of 358 points, while Liverpool managed 357.
Yet City won three league titles to Liverpool’s one in that time.
Jurgen Klopp’s team could hardly have done more to challenge City’s supremacy and was still left in the wake of Guardiola in three years out of four.
Approaching the final stages of the season, there is a relentlessness about City’s form that is blowing away all comers. It would be major shock if a Leicester team that has lost eight of its last nine could halt the champions – even after the appointment of manager Dean Smith this week until the end of the season.
Arsenal can only do what it has done all season, which has confounded expectations. An anticipated collapse has not come – even after it was temporarily knocked off top spot with that 3-1 home loss to City in February.
Its title challenge has come out of the blue after years of failing to even qualify for the Champions League, let alone trouble the top of the table.
For 28 minutes at Anfield, it produced a statement performance that may even have had City wondering whether Arteta’s team could be stopped.
How Arsenal responds to the setback that followed could be critical in determining the next Premier League champions. ___
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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