MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Just like that, Manchester City is back on top in the Premier League and is once again the team to catch in the race for the title.
While Arsenal still has a game in hand, the champions lead the way for the first time since August and, if recent years are anything to go by, will take some stopping.
Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Emirates Stadium was a statement of title intent from Pep Guardiola’s team and inflicted a third defeat in four games on a faltering Arsenal, a run that also includes being beaten by City in the FA Cup last month.
It also tightens things up at the top of the table, with just five points separating the three leading clubs – bringing third-place Manchester United right into contention.
Arsenal travels to Aston Villa in the first Premier League game of the weekend on Saturday and has the chance to move back above City, even if only temporarily.
City is away at Nottingham Forest later in the day, while United hosts Leicester on Sunday.
With so few points separating all three teams, any slip now could have a telling impact on the title race, with the immediate pressure on Arsenal to arrest its recent slide.
Having led the table by eight points as recently as recently as Jan. 19, Mikel Arteta’s team knows just how quickly the picture can change.
In race that will be as much a test of nerve as much as quality, who will come out on top at the end of the season?
The preseason favorite and champion in four of the last five seasons, City has the pedigree and the knowhow, which is a major advantage over its rivals.
But Guardiola’s team has looked out of sorts for much of the campaign, with the manager recently suggesting his players had lost their edge after so much success during his tenure.
That comment felt like an attempt to spark a reaction, but the biggest motivation might have come from outside the club, with the Premier League last week accusing City of breaching a slew of financial regulations that could lead to expulsion from English football’s top division if upheld.
That prompted back-to-back wins against Villa and Arsenal, which has propelled City to the top of the table on goal difference.
The biggest threat to Guardiola’s bid to win three titles in a row could still come from within, with his team arguably more predictable since the introduction of striker Erling Haaland.
There is also the potential that City becomes distracted by the Champions League, the one major trophy it has failed to win under the ownership of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.
The win against Arsenal was evidence of City’s quality – but frailties that have been on show for much of the season leave a question mark hanging over the champions.
Arsenal will lift the title for the first time since 2004 if it wins the rest of its remaining games. Easier said than done, but having played one fewer than City, its fate is in its own hands.
The problem for Arteta is that his team is struggling to win at all at the moment.
Ever since he played a slightly weakened team against City in the FA Cup, the long-time leader’s form has plummeted, losing to Everton and drawing with Brentford before Wednesday’s latest defeat.
Suddenly it feels like the cracks are appearing and questions are being raised over the experience of a young team with little trophy-winning experience in its ranks.
While Arteta was an assistant to Guardiola in title-winning campaigns for City, he has never been in this situation as a manager and the focus is on how he handles the pressure of holding off the challenge of his former mentor.
Injury to striker Gabriel Jesus has also had an impact, with the Brazilian’s replacement Eddie Nketiah missing key chances against City.
As a surprise leader, Arsenal passed virtually every test of its credentials up to the end of January, but its current slump could prove costly.
If Arsenal was an unexpected title challenger at the start of the season, United looked like it had a fight on its hands just to make the top four and Champions League qualification.
And after losing its opening two games of the campaign, a relegation fight looked a likelier prospect than a battle at the top.
Erik ten Hag has transformed the club’s fortunes and looks ahead of schedule in his rebuild since taking charge at the end of last season.
However, his squad still looks too light to maintain a challenge right to the end, with Christian Eriksen ruled out for the majority of the rest of the season through injury and Anthony Martial struggling to stay fit.
United’s weaknesses have been highlighted in recent weeks when draws with Crystal Palace and Leeds dented Ten Hag’s ambitions. A late loss at Arsenal was also costly.
In total United has dropped seven points from its last five games, but still remains within touching distance of the leading two.
A major advantage for Ten Hag is the fact that United has already played City and Arsenal twice, while those two teams meet again in April, meaning more dropped points for at least one of them.
But it feels too soon for a United team that finished 35 points off City last season.