MANCHESTER – If Arsenal is to win its first Premier League title in 19 years, it will have to hold off a growing double threat from Manchester.
The battle to be crowned English champions looks set to come down to just three clubs after wins for Manchester City and Manchester United on Sunday tightened the gap at the top of the table.
Defending champion City beat Aston Villa 3-1 and has the chance to move above leader Arsenal on goal difference with a win when the sides meet on Wednesday.
United is now five points off the top after beating Leeds 2-0 at Elland Road.
But the immediate threat to Arsenal, which has led the standings since August, is a City team that has the chance to wipe out an eight-point deficit that existed less than a month ago, even if it has played a game more.
“We will see after all the games when the Premier League is finished. But we are going to London to try to get a win,” City manager Pep Guardiola said. “When one team has made 50 points in the first leg (half of the season) it is because they are very good. We closed the gap today because the performance from the team was really, really good.”
The wins for City and United will increase the sense of injustice felt by Arsenal at Ivan Toney's equalizer against Mikel Arteta's Arsenal in a 1-1 draw with Brentford on Saturday.
Referees chief Howard Webb contacted the club to explain “significant" and “human” error after VAR failed to rule Toney's goal out for offside, but that is likely to be of little comfort to a team whose title challenge is beginning to show signs of faltering.
Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez all scored in the first half as City issued a defiant response on the field following accusations this week of breaching financial regulations.
While City is the main threat, United has emerged as a serious contender — even if manager Erik ten Hag may yet rue the dropped points in a 2-2 draw with Leeds midweek.
His team at least got the better of its rival from Yorkshire when meeting for a second time in the space of four days.
Even then United left it late, with Marcus Rashford opening the scoring in the 80th minute and substitute Alejandro Garnacho adding a second goal in the 85th.
It was Rashford's 21st goal of the season and his 13th in his last 15 games. And with Cristiano Ronaldo departed and Anthony Martial enduring ongoing fitness issues, the England forward is vital to United's ambitions.
Ten Hag said Rashford was now “definitely one of” the best in Europe.
“He has the skills. I was convinced from the first moment. I was really excited to work with him. I thought I could get more out of him," he said. “But he has so many skills, such high potential and I think there can be even more. When he works well, he will even score more goals because he can score with his left, right and his head.”
HAALAND PENALTY MYSTERY
Erling Haaland has scored 31 goals in 28 appearances for City, but was denied No. 32 when overlooked for penalty duty against Villa.
The Norway international is City's first choice from the spot, but had to make way for Riyadh Mahrez when his team was awarded a penalty late in the first half, which even caught Guardiola by surprise.
“I need to talk to them,” Guardiola said. "Normally Erling is the first taker and Riyad is the second one. Rodri was involved so we will see what they say tomorrow.”
Haaland was substituted at halftime after taking a kick, with Guardiola unsure if he will be available against Arsenal.
Ollie Watkins pulled one back for Villa in the 61st.
DE GEA'S LANDMARK
David de Gea made his 400th Premier League appearance in Manchester United's win against Leeds.
For the goalkeeper, however, the victory was more important than his personal landmark.
“Today wasn’t about that, it was about winning the game and we did it so now I can enjoy the 400 Premier League games,” he said. "It’s great to come here, play like we did today. Clean sheet, three massive points and 400 games, perfect day.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson