London, Dec 15: Eliminated from the Champions League and with its unbeaten run in the Premier League over, Manchester City's mettle will be tested by in-form Arsenal on Sunday as the battle for the English title heats up this weekend.
City's 2-1 loss to Chelsea on Monday blew the title race open ahead of the traditional busy Christmas schedule, with four teams now within nine points of the leaders after 15 games.
City has a two-point cushion ahead of second-place Manchester United, but with Arsenal striker Robin van Persie heading to Manchester in the form of his career, City's lead is in jeopardy.
“Monday has made us feel more hungry,” City captain Vincent Kompany said of the setback at Chelsea. “We want Sunday to come as quickly as possible and to play football again. That is the kind of team we are.
“In those kinds of moments we react and we are eager to do it on Sunday.”
By the time the teams kick off at the Etihad Stadium in the standout match of the weekend, City could have dropped to second with United visiting Queens Park Rangers earlier in the day.
The defending champions recovered from their own Champions League exit by beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 last weekend, with Wayne Rooney ending his two-month goal drought, and have managed to maintain the pressure on City with five wins from their last six league games.
“City have set the standard and not dropped many points but there's a cluster of clubs behind them which we're heading up, so we're quite happy with the way things have gone,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said.
Third-place Chelsea, rejuvenated after wins over Newcastle and City over the last two weekends, visits third-from-bottom Wigan on Saturday and fourth-place Tottenham hosts Sunderland on Sunday.
The biggest interest, however, will center on the City-Arsenal match.
Arsenal hasn't lost in the league since falling to a 2-1 defeat at north London rival Spurs—a span of eight games in which Van Persie has scored 12 goals.
The stunning volley that clinched Arsenal a 1-0 victory over Everton last Saturday took Van Persie's Premier League tally to 15 goals this season and 33 in total in 2011, three behind the record in a calendar year set by Alan Shearer in 1995.
With City's defense shorn of both its left backs—Gael Clichy is suspended after his red card at Chelsea and Aleksandar Kolarov is injured—and potentially without right back Micah Richards (calf), it could be vulnerable against Van Persie and attacking partner Theo Walcott.
City, however, has a perfect home record with seven wins from seven and is one goal away from making it 50 for the season.
“I consider them as a top team, who will make a top game of it,” Kompany said of Arsenal. “But we are a difficult team to beat at home. ... In the big games, even when we didn't win, we still looked like the team that was most likely to win the game.”
United's injuries are mounting ahead of the trip to Loftus Road, where Chelsea has lost and City was given one of its toughest matches this season before eventually coming through 3-2.
Captain Nemanja Vidic, with a season-ending knee injury, joined an injury list already including Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Javier Hernandez, while United said this week that Darren Fletcher has taken an extended break from football because of a chronic bowel disease.
At the other end of the table, last-place Bolton looks to end a run of four straight defeats when it visits Fulham on Saturday, when next-to-last Blackburn hosts West Bromwich Albion.
Also Saturday, Everton is at home to Norwich, Newcastle hosts Swansea and Stoke travels to Wolves. Sixth-place Liverpool visits Aston Villa in Sunday's other match.