We look at five key battles that will determine who comes out on top in this weekend’s Carabao Cup final between Manchester City and Arsenal...
Pierre-Emerick Aubameuyang v Aymeric Laporte
Having enjoyed impressive Premier League debuts, both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Aymeric Laporte struggled to have similar impacts on their second bows for their respective new clubs.
Laporte couldn’t deal with Jamie Vardy as the Leicester paceman took the ball around the young Frenchman to open the scoring against Manchester City, while Aubameyang was a mere bystander as Tottenham outclassed Arsenal in the north London derby at Wembley.
Now, with a chance to win silverware less than two months after arriving in England on the horizon, both will be keen to really prove their credentials. Laporte has all the ball-playing attributes - the 23-year-old averaged 7.4 accurate long passes per 90 minutes in La Liga this season, more than any outfield player aged 25 or under in Europe’s top five divisions in that time.
However, he possesses the physical attributes to cope with the high octane Premier League. Aubameyang, though, will certainly test those defensive capabilities.
His record over the past two and a half seasons is outstanding: 70 goals in 71 league games — only Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Harry Kane, Edinson Cavani and Gonzalo Higuain have scored more in Europe’s top five leagues in that period, and Aubameyang’s goals-per-game ratio is better than the latter three.
This is one of Europe’s leading marksmen, and with his old mate Henrikh Mkhitaryan providing the passes, he certainly will cause City, and Laporte a headache.
Mesut Ozil v Kyle Walker
With Henrikh Mkhitaryan cup-tied, it will be down to a rather familiar face to create the chances for Arsenal. While Kevin De Bruyne leads the way with assists and chances created in the Premier League this season, not far behind, in terms of chances created, is Ozil, with the Germany international still producing the goods from deep.
Ozil should have more assists, but that is more down to his misfiring team-mates than anything else, as he has created 72 chances in the Premier League this season. His passing in general is immensely accurate. Of the top creators in the Premier League, Ozil has a significantly better pass success rate, four per cent better than De Bruyne. Such reliability will be required to try and generate some momentum for Arsenal.
However, as with Aubameyang, Ozil was very ineffective against Spurs and is often accused of going missing on the big occasion - Ozil didn't create a single chance for a team-mate in the defeat at City in the league.
Kyle Walker will not allow Ozil time on the ball, so another quiet game for the German isn’t out of the question, but all it takes is one pass to unlock a defence, and Ozil is as capable as any.
Walker’s relentlessness is what sets him apart. He is up and down that touchline with breathless energy, and such attacking intent could, inadvertently, nullify Ozil too, by forcing him into defensive actions.
However, having made the mistake that allowed Will Grigg to score the winner for Wigan on Monday night, Ozil needs to test Walker right from the off.
Kevin De Bruyne v Granit Xhaka
What superlatives are left for Kevin De Bruyne? The latest incredible stat he has achieved is that since making his debut for Werder Bremen in August 2012, no player in Europe’s big five leagues has provided more assists than De Bruyne (77).
That was accomplished after a hat-trick of assists against Leicester in City’s last Premier League game. Somehow, De Bruyne just seems to go from strength to strength - is he on course for the Ballon d’Or?
Out to stop him will be Granit Xhaka - Arsenal’s ever-present. The Switzerland international has started 37 Premier Leagues in a row since March, as Arsene Wenger turns to his midfield general time and again.
Xhaka is also partial to an assist - he has provided four Premier League goals for Arsenal this season, having managed two all last season. His task against City, though, is likely to be solely a defensive one, stopping De Bruyne picking the ball up in those pockets of space his so thrives in. No easy task.
Sergio Aguero v Laurent Koscielny
The emergence of Gabriel Jesus as a first-team regular at City - sooner than many expected - meant many questioned whether Sergio Aguero would stick around to wait for his moment once again. How wrong those naysayers were.
Alongside Jesus, Aguero has shone this season, with the Brazilian youngster glowing in his admiration of Aguero in a recent interview - this is no prima donna who demands to start, Aguero is happy to pass on his wisdom.
However, in Jesus’ absence is where Aguero has really shone. Since the turn of the year, Aguero has scored 14 goals in 12 matches - no player has netted as many across the top five European Leagues in 2018. There have been two hat-tricks and a double in that run, too. This is a striker who is anything but on the wane.
Despite much upheaval in defence, Laurent Koscielny remains a stalwart of Wenger’s era, and is as effective as ever. He ranks in the top ten interception makers in the Premier League this season, while no Arsenal or Manchester City player comes close to his tally of clearances.
All those defensive capabilities are going to be tested by another City player who’s going from strength to strength.
Raheem Sterling v Hector Bellerin
After making such a blistering start to the season, this goal shave dried up for Raheem Sterling of late. Three goals in 10 appearances in all competitions in 2018 has reinvigorated his many doubters, with some wayward finishing hardly helping matters.
Yet, this is a player no stranger to overcoming criticism. He will be back, and there is no greater stage to do it than a cup final.
One of Sterling’s many strengths is how quick off the mark he is - both of City's two quickest goals in the Premier League this season have been scored by Sterling (38 seconds v Watford, 125 seconds v Leicester City). Such an early breakthrough could really unsettle Arsenal.
Hector Bellerin is another Arsenal ever-present, who has become one of the experienced heads of the group. He has faced Sterling several times before, and will know what a tough task he is about to face.
Like with Walker on Mkhitaryan, Bellerin’s attacking strength means he can push Sterling back to nullify his threat, but with Sterling determined to find his form after a less productive period, that may be a tall order.
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