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Merson says: ‘Different’ Man City in last chance title saloon

Sky Sports’ Paul Merson pens his latest column on the drama of the Premier League title race. The Magic Man also gives his views on Arsenal’s improvements, Manchester City’s difference from previous seasons and why timing plays such a vital role in season run-ins…

‘Job done for Arsenal!’

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Watch highlights from the Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal

There’s a lot of talk around whether Arsenal could have done more at Manchester City. Could they have been bolder and gone for a win?

You could turn around and say that City were without two of their best defenders in Kyle Walker and John Stones, and maybe that provided a big chance for Arsenal at a place they haven’t had a good record at.

However, they have now played arguably the best team in the world twice this season in the Premier League and they haven’t let in a goal.

They followed up the 1-0 win at the Emirates earlier in the season with a superb defensive performance to secure a goalless draw at the Etihad. They have taken four points of Pep Guardiola’s side. How many teams do that in a season?

Arsenal had to go up to Manchester and make sure they didn’t get beat and that’s exactly what they did. They achieved what they set out to do and full credit to them for that.

‘Arsenal’s improvement there for all to see’

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Former Liverpool defender Stephen Warnock heaped praise on the performances of Gabriel and William Saliba against Manchester City, and analyses how they nullified Erling Haaland

I didn’t feel Arsenal needed to win at City on Sunday for their title chances, but I thought it was critical they didn’t lose.

You can see the improvement at the club.

Obviously it all unravelled for them at the end of last season. They got nervy and it slipped away from them and into City’s hands. It left you thinking if they would ever get that good a chance of winning the title again.

But the progress has continued. It’s there for all to see.

They are second in the league and right in the mix for the title again. They have taken four points off the treble winners from last season in City. They have taken four points from the league leaders Liverpool. They are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Arsenal are moving along and improving, and fair play to them. They went out and paid £100m for Declan Rice and he has taken them to another level.

‘Defensive strength gives Arsenal real chance in Champions League’

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Gary Neville credits Arsenal’s defensive structure throughout the game against Manchester City, and says the whole team pulled together to take away a point

You’d have to say William Saliba and Gabriel are the best centre-back pairing in the league.

They are so consistent and that is helped by the fact they consistently play together.

Look at Manchester City, their two centre-backs change around a lot. It’s changed a lot for Liverpool in recent times too. How many times has Ruben Dias’ partner changed at City? It’s the same of Virgil van Dijk at Liverpool.

But at Arsenal, Saliba looks left and he sees Gabriel, and Gabriel looks right and sees Saliba week in, week out. That really helps defenders.

What also helps them is the protection they get from midfield. Whether it is Declan Rice or Jorginho, or both, they are two midfielders that are very disciplined and good at what they do. They don’t just run around all over the pitch, they play the position very well just like Rodri does at City.

A word too for the likes of Jakub Kiwior and Ben White, and goalkeeper David Raya, who took a while to settle after his move from Brentford but has been outstanding in recent months. They are extremely solid.

It was a magnificent defensive performance at City and when you see such a solid performance, you have to give Arsenal a chance in the Champions League.

‘City not blowing teams away anymore’

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Pep Guardiola believes his team are playing at the highest level compared to title rivals Liverpool and Arsenal but Liverpool are the favourites to lift the trophy

For all the talk about Arsenal’s set up, Manchester City needed to do more to win the game.

To me, it didn’t feel like the City we’ve seen in recent seasons. In the past, whatever their results, you felt like they believed they could and would go on a run of 10 straight wins if they needed to.

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Gary Neville thinks that Manchester City are still well-placed to win the title and expects them to make fewer mistakes during the run-in than their rivals

I didn’t see that confidence from them against Arsenal. It felt like they just didn’t want to risk losing the football match.

They also aren’t blowing teams away anymore. They aren’t winning by big margins and that is taking its toll. They used to fly out the traps and move 4-0 up in 20 minutes and then they were able to rest players. Those minutes add up for players and I feel it is having an affect.

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Gary Neville was gobsmacked by Erling Haaland’s miss against Arsenal and Roy Keane described him as a ‘League Two player’

Also, they aren’t just chasing one team down this season like they were with Arsenal last year. They are having to contend with two really good football teams in the Gunners again, and Liverpool.

They could win this weekend and Liverpool could slip up at Old Trafford against Manchester United, but if Arsenal go to Brighton and win, they don’t gain anything. When you are chasing one team, you win, they lose, and that’s a six-point turnaround. With three teams in the mix, you can have a good weekend and not move anywhere.

That also takes its toll.

‘Timing of games crucial in the run-in’

Race for the title

Both Arsenal and Manchester City are now chasing down Liverpool.

Things can change but both Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta will be slightly concerned. Liverpool face Sheffield United at Anfield this midweek and you’d expect an easy win with Jurgen Klopp’s side improving their goal difference.

It’s another game that ticks by and with just eight to go then, time is starting to run out.

But timing and pressure will play a huge part in this title race.

Liverpool and Arsenal can go and beat Sheffield United and Luton respectively, and Manchester City can respond with wins against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in their next two games, and they could be level on points with Liverpool – who would have a game in and – and top, depending on goal difference.

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Roy Keane agrees with the Opta predictor that has put Liverpool as favourites to win the Premier League following Super Sunday’s results. The other pundits don’t all see the same outcome

Arsenal could beat Luton handsomely but find themselves third in the table by the time their game against Brighton comes around on Saturday at 5.30pm.

It’s madness and I think we will keep seeing these changes as the weeks go on because of the schedule and where the matches fall. Every game is about timing.

For example, when Arsenal go to Manchester United towards the end of the season, United could be in a cup final and out of the running for the Champions League places. Arsenal could catch them at the right time. The same with Everton on the final day. It could either be the hardest end-of-season game going or the easiest, depending on whether Everton are fighting for their Premier League lives or not.

Who plays first on a weekend can also prove crucial in a run-in.

‘Liverpool the team to beat now’

Premier League tilte race: Opta predictor

It’s a big, big week for all three teams.

You’d prefer Liverpool and Arsenal’s fixtures this week, of course, but I don’t see Manchester City slipping up either. Then at the weekend, Manchester United could shock Liverpool again, while you never know which Brighton will turn up. They could quite easily shock Arsenal.

Liverpool are the team to beat now but they have a huge ‘cup final’ coming up against Manchester United next Sunday. We saw what could happen when the two sides met in the FA Cup.

United will be up for it. They will want to stop Liverpool winning the title. It’s their season in a nutshell really. If they can help stop Liverpool winning the title the United fans will be ecstatic.

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Highlights from the Premier League match between Liverpool and Brighton

It does also feel a bit like last-chance saloon for City, who are three points behind leaders Liverpool and with an inferior goal difference.

They do have some tricky fixtures coming up against Aston Villa and Crystal Palace away. They have trips to Brighton and Spurs also on the horizon, which looks difficult, but if they can come through those next few games unscathed, there may start to be some panic from Liverpool and Arsenal.

However, you can’t get away from the feeling that this title race will continue to ebb and flow all the way to the end of the season. It’s all set up beautifully for the remining nine games and there will be excitement at every turn.

Sky News
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