Manchester City’s manager Pep Guardiola instructs to the players. File/AFP
The cavernous setting of an empty Wembley Stadium will play host to two FA Cup semi-finals this weekend as holders Manchester City face Arsenal in a week when old animosities between the clubs were flamed, while Chelsea and Manchester United switch focus from their battle for a place in next season’s Champions League.
City and Arsenal are first up on Saturday as the Gunners attempt to spring a surprise for the second time in a week after downing English champions Liverpool 2-1 on Wednesday.
That an Arsenal victory would be considered a shock says it all about the way City have overtaken one of English football’s traditional superpowers over the past decade.
Only once in the past 10 years have Arsenal finished above City in the table and Pep Guardiola’s men have won the past seven meetings between the two by a combined score of 20-2.
Arsenal cannot come close to matching Abu Dhabi-backed City’s resources, especially as they now face a fourth straight season without Champions League riches after 19 consecutive years in European football’s elite competition under Arsene Wenger.
Guardiola made reference to the legendary former Arsenal boss after City overturned a two-season ban by UEFA from European competitions for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play in the Court of Arbitration for Sport this week.
“I know that for elite clubs, respectful clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United and especially Arsenal, it is uncomfortable us being here,” said Guardiola. “But they have to understand we deserve to be here.”
Mikel Arteta played his part in back-to-back league titles for City in the past two seasons as Guardiola’s assistant, but now has the tough task of beating his former boss.
Beating Liverpool was a perfect confidence booster, but victory came thanks to two uncharacteristic errors from Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker as Jurgen Klopp’s men camped inside their half for much of the match with nearly 70 per cent possession and 24 shots to Arsenal’s three.
“The gap is enormous but the gap in many areas we cannot improve in two months,” Arteta said of closing the chasm to Liverpool. “The gap between the accountability, the energy, commitment and fight of the two teams is now equal and before it wasn’t like this.”
Arsenal need to bridge a similar gap against a City side that has been in ominous form since a 3-0 win when the sides last met on the first night of the Premier League’s restart last month.
Guardiola even had the luxury of resting Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Aymeric Laporte from the start of Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Bournemouth, while Arteta has bemoaned the “crazy minutes” his key players have amassed in recent weeks.
Solskjaer, Lampard eye silverware: On Sunday, there is a second clash between Manchester and London as United look to complete a clean sweep against Chelsea this season having won three previous meetings between the sides this season.
United are on a 19-game unbeaten run in all competitions and will be confident of reaching the final with the in-form front three of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood perfectly set up to expose Chelsea’s defensive flaws on the counter-attack.
Chelsea have already bolstered their attacking options ahead of next season with the signings of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech and look set to be the biggest Premier League spenders in the close season.
United and Chelsea look the most likely candidates if the two-horse race for the title between City and Liverpool in recent years is to be expanded next term.
However, doubts remain over whether Solskjaer and Frank Lampard are the men to lead each club back to winning league titles up against coaches of the calibre of Guardiola and Klopp.
For both, winning a trophy would be the perfect way to build momentum into next season, leaving plenty to play for even if no fans can be present at Wembley.