The Hard Tackle looks at three key players to watch out for in the highly-anticipated game between Manchester City and Arsenal on Saturday.

The Premier League season has given us a build-up towards a conclusion that promises twists and plenty of excitement. Arsenal lead the table by five points over Manchester City. The two teams will face each other in their league encounter in February, already billed as a title decider.

But before that, the English giants will face off in a mammoth FA Cup fourth-round clash at the Etihad, which could be a teaser for what will come next month. Historically, Arsenal have dominated this fixture. But in the last decade or so, Manchester City have been a brutal force for the Gunners.

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Since the Santi Cazorla masterclass at the Etihad back in the 2014/15 season, the Gunners have not won away at the Etihad. They have indeed found plenty of success in the FA Cup against the Cityzens, beating them twice in the semifinal stage.

In fact, whenever the Gunners found a way past Manchester City in those seasons, they have gone on to lift the cup. In each of those encounters, individual brilliance played a major role. Alexis Sanchez (2017) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (2020) single-handedly won those ties for the Gunners.

It is up to Pep Guardiola and his charges to regain balance in the cup competition and get a win at the Etihad. For that to happen, the Manchester City boss will hope some key performers are at the top of their game, especially Riyad Mahrez and John Stones. Others must improve their overall form. But much depends on the duo.

As for Arsenal, they have been in terrific form. But that is largely limited to their first-team regulars. The fringe stars are not up to the mark, and some of those could get a chance for revival. For now, the focus will remain on new arrival Leandro Trossard and his ability to pass a big test against Manchester City.

Riyad Mahrez

Some players carry an aura of game changers, and Mahrez certainly falls in that category. His Manchester City career is often described as inconsistent and moody, which has some justification. Yet, the Algerian winger has proven his worth more than once, albeit always in patches.

‘Patches’ describes Mahrez’s time at the club better. But those streaks have often helped the club reach great heights. He has developed a habit of starting seasons slowly before picking up form when the team needs inspiration.

Last season, he went on a scoring spree and is beginning to repeat that feat this term. Mahrez has been Manchester City’s best player since the World Cup, and the recent display against Tottenham is glowing proof of that. He has often found plenty of joy playing against Arsenal, scoring in the most recent encounter against the Gunners.

He will come into this game as a focal point of inspiration for the rest of the team and will hope to deliver once more. His movements in the wide areas will be crucial for Guardiola’s side to assert an influence in the game, especially in the final third.

John Stones

In Pep Guardiola’s reign at Manchester City, there is a particular theme with central defenders that has remained unchanged over the years. The Catalan tactician always prefers a set of centre-backs from the start of the season and seemingly sticks with his choices.

There have been seasons when one of John Stones, Aymeric Laporte or Ruben Dias has suffered from a lack of game time. It may appear Dias has been somewhat sidelined. In all his years at the club, Stones has had the privilege of having a near-constant presence in the backline, which is set to continue.

Manuel Akanji is getting a good share of the minutes at the back compared to Laporte and Dias. The Swiss international has been a good acquisition. As for Stones, he remains integral to Guardiola’s style and will play a crucial role in the second half of the season.

Against Arsenal, Stones will play a crucial role if selected in the lineup. The English defender is imperative to execute Guardiola’s style against an opposition that implements similar tactics. Maintaining a high line with precision will prove key in this game, and the England international will have a huge task.

He will also have to deal with the high-pressing style of Arsenal forwards, who have been fantastic over the season. Stones will have to lead the backline precisely and use the ball well during this crucial FA Cup encounter.

Leandro Trossard

If the news of Emile Smith Rowe missing out on making the Arsenal squad for the Manchester City game is true, it leaves Arsenal back to square one. In January, the idea was to bring in another attacker who would add to the depth while enabling Mikel Arteta to rely on Smith Rowe to provide support.

Leandro Trossard arrived for this purpose. The Belgian international showed glimpses of his talent in a brief cameo against Manchester United. His output for Brighton over the years got him the move to Arsenal, and he will be itching to showcase them in a full game.

Arteta will likely give Trossard his full debut against Manchester City in the FA Cup. The Belgian forward has to show he’s more than capable of leading this attack in the absence of other notable names. We have already looked at what he brings to the table, and his style in the final third will prove crucial in tight spaces.

Trossard has plenty of output in his game. And if he manages to influence the match with goals, then Arsenal will have a great player on their hands. Manchester City will always be a tough opponent for anyone, let alone Arsenal. But these are big tests to show one’s mettle in the game.

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