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Oct 26, 2012

A progression of pressure

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Arsenal: The C-word

What a difference an international break makes. Prior to those arduous 14 days, Arsenal had impressed with a 3-1 win at West Ham United. It was a game that featured £12 million summer signing Olivier Giroud's first Premier League goal, a match that demonstrated mental toughness. What it certainly wasn't was a game of few chances as puppeteer Santi Cazorla pulled the strings in midfield.

Ahead of this weekend, though, dark clouds have formed over Emirates Stadium. Back-to-back losses against Norwich City and Schalke have seen an accustomed fragility in defence but also an untraditional incapability to create meaningful goalscoring opportunities. There are no points awarded for sideways passing and possession statistics. Some will point to the players who were unavailable for selection, but others will snap back that these players are no strangers to an overused treatment table - in itself an untreated issue that has plagued the Gunners for many a year.

"Points not profit" was the theme of Arsenal's unfortunately-timed annual general meeting on Thursday as the club's hierarchy attempted to muffle the disquiet. Yet with Robin van Persie sold to Manchester United for £24 million in the summer, the midweek evidence that 17-year-old Serge Gnabry is the player being turned to at a time of despair spoke volumes, and spoke them so loudly that blood could have dribbled from the ears of chief executive Ivan Gazidis.

Certainly, anyone to write or voice the word 'crisis' should be sent to an asylum for the hyperbolic. But there is cause for another C-word: 'concern'. Arsene Wenger has, at best, a decent squad on his hands, and another top-four finish (not to be sniffed at, although it is not a trophy, Arsene) is the maximum they will achieve once more.

And therein lies the issue. Supporters who are charged higher prices (£13.90 for fish and chips) rightly demand progress for their pounds, and that has not been forthcoming - if anything, there has been regression in terms of the crop of players they pay to watch.

But despite the doom - and such is the short-terminism of this sport - a triumph over winless Queens Park Rangers on Saturday would be likely to be followed by claims by the deluded of a title bid renewed. Football, eh?

Manchester City: Trouble a-brewing

Roberto Mancini is under pressure. His winning of the Premier League title last season was laudable, but it also ensured there was little time for dwelling on a failure to reach the knockout phase of the Champions League - one of the targets of their campaign.

This holy grail of a competition is what, we're told, owners pine after. Just look at Roman Abramovich at Chelsea - he appeared infatuated by it. And, therefore, progression (this week's buzzword) was expected in 2012-13, despite the difficult group draw City were dealt.

After this midweek, though, they find themselves bottom of Group D with just one (very fortunate) point gained from three matches played. Mancini has, whether admirably or foolishly, shouldered the blame after again insisting on the infamous three at the back. After criticism of that system by Micah Richards, Mancini told Sky Sports: "It's my fault... I didn't prepare the players properly for this game. It's my fault."

Lest we forget, beyond the domestic titles he has won during his managerial career, Mancini has failed in Europe - hence his departure from Inter Milan. And, while talk of a sacking at Etihad Stadium is premature, stranger (and rasher) things have happened. Mancini has not been helped by his side's unconvincing start to their league title defence, although the character on show at West Brom last time out bore 'the hallmark of champions'.

Order should be restored in a home match with Swansea on Saturday evening, but November 6 will be circled with felt tip in Sheikh Mansour's diary. That's when City host Ajax, and when they could mathematically be out of Europe's premier club competition for a second season running.

Sunday: Supreme

The Merseyside derby followed by Chelsea against Manchester United: oh, boy. In the former, the microscope will be on Liverpool's ever-concerning frontline as Luis Suarez (with ten shots but only one on target against Reading last weekend), carries the burden of being the club's only available senior striker.

Everton are currently six points better off than their city rivals and will, rightly, fancy their chances of repeating 2010's scalp, when the now-departed Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill scored the decisive goals.

As for the match at Stamford Bridge, there is the potential for a spectacle. With Chelsea's new attacking impetus combined with United's defensive leakiness, the recipe is there for the proverbial feast of goals. The Blues, who have enjoyed an unbeaten league start and were so impressive at Tottenham last weekend, were brought crashing down to earth as Shakhtar Donetsk deservedly beat them on Tuesday. It was the first time, other than their match against Atletico Madrid, that a team had taken advantage of this season's new ethos of gung-ho.

United can take some refuge in that Blues performance, yet their own foibles were there for all to see as they conceded twice early on versus Braga. "I can't get to the bottom of it," Sir Alex Ferguson said after his team went behind for an eighth match in 12.

Perhaps, Sir Alex, it was down to Michael Carrick being at centre-back and Alexander Buttner being unproven at the highest level? Just a thought. Anyway, at least - unlike Arsenal - United can rely on their firepower to get them out of a hole.


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