A reunion delayed but no longer denied is finally on tap for Wednesday when Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola welcomes former assistant and current Arsenal boss Mikael Arteta back to the Etihad as the Premier League marks its post-pandemic return.
The match has been postponed twice, including once after Arteta himself tested positive for COVID-19. He was one of the first high-profile sports figures to test positive, and eventually, the Premier League went dark for what will have been 100 days before Wednesday's restart in an empty stadium - a prerequisite in the current post-pandemic state.
"Obviously, we had a big turning point with the coronavirus and being away from each other for three months, but we've been trying to keep going in our direction, being close in contact and communication with our players and our staff and I think we are in a really good position to move forward," Arteta told Arsenal's official website.
Arteta's relationship with Guardiola dates back to their days at Barcelona's famed La Masia academy. Arteta never played for Barcelona but carved out a career as a stellar midfielder for both Everton and Arsenal (9-13-6). After retiring from the Gunners, Guardiola quickly added Arteta to his backroom staff in 2016, turning down an offer from Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger to lead the academy team as a means of beginning his coaching career.
Arteta became Guardiola's top assistant, helping City win a pair of Premier League titles, including the Centurions of 2017-18. Overall, the pair brought five trophies to the blue side of Manchester, winning the Carabao Cup twice and the FA Cup once. As City found success, Arsenal lurched into further inconsistency under Wenger's successor Unai Emery, and they finally cut ties with him last November, leading them to reach out to their former midfielder maestro.
"In my coaching career and my personal life, he has an enormous influence," Arteta said of Guardiola. "If I have to talk about the person he is, his values, the way he has treated me and how he deals with the players and the staff around him, its phenomenal. As a coach, I have learned so much from him, we have spent some amazing moments together, some difficult ones as well, but the experience next to him has been incredible."
Arsenal enter this contest in ninth place on 40 points, but still within shouting distance of fourth at eight points adrift. The Gunners, who are also in the knockout rounds of the Europa League, are five points out of fifth - a spot that could result in a Champions League berth pending City's appeal of UEFA's ban in the Court for Arbitration of Sport.
City (18-3-7) are a distant second to champions-elect Liverpool, having all but mathematically conceded the title. Thus, the focus on this match has been Guardiola's relationship with Arteta. Despite their close friendship, there were times the City gaffer was prickly with the media about the timing of Arteta's eventual move to take over any club since it was a constant subject at press conferences given the scrutiny of Emery's job security.
Guardiola joked he texted Arteta about the choice of post-match wine to celebrate the match and offered a warm assessment of his former assistant turned opponent in north London.
"It was a joy for me and for all of us to work with him," Guardiola told Metro. "The feeling I have is he's happy there and doing an incredible job. I'm looking forward to seeing him. This game belongs to the players, they make the difference.
"He knows absolutely everything of us, he was an incredibly important part of our success, he helped us to be who we were and who we are. We are delighted he will come back, especially if he is happy there."
Arsenal were still 10 days from hiring Arteta when caretaker manager Freddie Ljungberg oversaw a 3-0 defeat to City in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in December. Kevin De Bruyne was a one-man tour de force, bagging a first-half brace around setting up a goal by Raheem Sterling on the quarter-hour.
City are seeking their third straight league double over Arsenal and have won the last six matches by a combined 17-2 in all competitions. Guardiola's lone blemish with City in nine meetings versus Arsenal (7-1-1) was a FA Cup semifinal loss at Wembley in 2017.