Getty Images

LONDON -- Heading into this opening lap of the Premier League's run-in, both of the title challengers might have convinced themselves that this was the day their rivals were about to do them a favor. Manchester City were going to have to overcome Liverpool, a tough test on paper if not in practice, without Erling Haaland, the man around whom this team has been built.

Arsenal's home clash with Leeds looked far easier on paper but the Gunners were also going to have to get the job done in the absence of key players, not just William Saliba but Bukayo Saka. That was a feat they had not managed since the final day of the 2020-21 season, a time when he had merely been a player of extreme promise, not one of world football's most devastating attacking forces.

Given the transcendent importance of both it was perhaps no surprise that both sides staggered out of the block and yet both ultimately secured the three points in emphatic fashion, 4-1 victories that leave the Premier League table looking much as it did when Saturday began. Arsenal might have hoped for a favor from Jurgen Klopp against a Haaland-less opponent when the day began but ultimately time is on their side; every week where they match City's result takes them closer to a first title in 19 years.

Still, the reigning champions will take heart from the versatility they showed without their star player. Even if the mood music coming out of the Etihad Stadium had been cautious in recent days, it seemed more likely than not that Pep Guardiola would gamble on Haaland's fitness, particularly when he had indicated on Friday afternoon that he was prepared to do exactly this. City have designed a side specifically to exploit Europe's most relentless goalscorer.

Indeed, the early exchanges were pockmarked by City delivering exactly the sort of low crosses from the byline that Haaland so often crashes into the net. They have been Guardiola's modus operandi since coming to the Premier League; in previous years, however, his players rotated the responsibility of finishing off these flowing moves. This season you could forgive them for not really attacking the box with the same intensity when their No. 9 has a preternatural ability to be on hand wherever the ball might land.

Perhaps the moment of greatest delirium in north London came two and a quarter hours before kick off at the Emirates Stadium, Mohamed Salah finishing off one of several dangerous Liverpool breakaways with a precise finish bent into the bottom left. For a moment the Arsenal faithful could convince themselves that this might be the day the title race swung decisively in their favor. However, a team with such a paper-thin midfield and a defense intent on undermining its own cause rarely looked like they could keep City's goal tally low enough to give their forwards a sniff.

Jack Grealish has often eased into a supporting role, providing for those in central areas, but in Haaland's absence, he relished the spotlight, delivering the most precise of crosses for Julian Alvarez moments after his tackle had denied Salah what might have been Liverpool's second.

In both games, an early strike in the second half radically changed the tenor of the contest. Alvarez dropped deep to ping a pass into Mahrez in space on the right, a low delivery finding Kevin De Bruyne to sweep home. From there the contest was rather academic but that provided a platform for City to get back into their familiar groove, drawing Liverpool's flatfooted midfield out of position and zipping the ball around them.

Perhaps the fact that Arsenal weren't really able to follow along as they made their way to the Emirates cooled their nerves. You could have forgiven them for wobbling in the knowledge that their title rivals had turned the toughest remaining game of their league campaign into a procession. Certainly, the Gunners were slow out of the block but instead of nerves it probably came down to the absence of Haaland's chief rival for this season's individual prizes.

An illness bug that also claimed Ben White confined Saka to the bench, the first time Arsenal had started a Premier League game without their best player since early December 2021. Their great strength has been the menace Mikel Arteta's side pose on both flanks at one time, but with their No. 7 missing, it took time for the Gunners to build any great threat along their right pocket. Leeds' tactic of plugging every gap down the Arsenal left looked to be effective and they had by far the better of the chances before Luke Ayling left a boot hanging for Gabriel Jesus to direct himself towards.

Arsenal had been just good enough in the first but seemed to lack Saka's spark. Over the first 30 minutes, only one player, Gabriel Martinelli, successfully completed a take-on. Leeds could sit deep in a back six, draw the Gunners forward and try to counter. Not until the second did they spark into life, White charging into the box to volley home at the back post off Martinelli's cross.

Leandro Trossard, meanwhile, was beginning to relish the free role off the right that he had been handed as Jesus returned to the side. It took less than an hour for them to show devastating synchronicity -- the Belgian taking the ball from his No. 9, darting to the byline and cutting back for Jesus to flick home --  but then that is rather the tale of Trossard's time at Arsenal. His has been the fastest of starts.

Since arriving from Brighton on January 21, he has registered seven assists, not merely the highest total of any individual but more than 10 Premier League teams. For most, his form in a new environment has been unimaginably excellent but, as he told CBS Sports, Arteta has "very wild dreams!"

"We knew about his quality and what he could bring to the team," Arteta added. "He can play right, left, he can play as a midfielder, he can be a false nine. He's really contributing to the team. He's taking responsibility to make that happen and we love him."

Trossard was not the only player to enter the fray impressively. Rob Holding continued where he had left off in replacing William Saliba before the international break, winning fulsome and unprompted praise from his manager. 

"It's not easy to do that when you just throw Rob in after a few months of inactivity at this level, but I thought he was exceptional," said Arteta.

There will be greater tests for Arsenal than a Leeds side who slipped into the bottom three with defeat. Frankly, City will face sterner opposition than this weak simulacrum of Liverpool. Both, however, should have their very brightest stars ready to enter the fray. If this is what they can do without them, both sides could hit impressive heights over the run-in.