For so long, it looked like being an afternoon of ginormous frustration for the Emirates faithful. Arsenal had hogged the ball like sugar-crazed kids hog the ice-cream counter at the cafeteria; and had contrived to taste flavour after flavour without finding that elusive mix of nuts, caramel and shooting boots that resulted in the ball finding the back of the net. Chances had been missed with a profligacy that was almost criminal, and a point seemed scant return for a match so unequivocally dominated by one side. But when Arteta took the ball to his feet and matters into his hands, the sigh around North London (and the crimson half of Manchester) was palpable in its loudness and blatant in its contentment. Manchester City had deserved nothing from the game, and that’s exactly what they got.
There were a few surprises in the home team selection. After Aaron Ramsey’s underwhelming performances on the left side of attack in recent games, Wenger went for the option that had worked so well against Tottenham a few weeks ago and chose sprightly Israeli Yossi Benayoun along with Theo Walcott to flank Robin van Persie up front. Rosicky, Arteta and Song made up the midfield triumvirate which has been the bedrock of so many solid showings of late, and the defence of Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs and Sagna selected itself.
City went with Arsenal Judas, Samir Nasri in the starting line-up in place of David Silva, who was rumoured to have had a knock in training. Sergio Aguero and Mario Balotelli spearheaded the attack, with the controversial Italian surprisingly placed on the left wing. Kompany and Lescott formed the spine of the City defence, with Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry tasked with stopping the Arsenal midfield getting into gear.
The first half
Started cautiously, understandable for two teams who had gone out to win, but not lose at the same time. The cautiousness soon gave way to rampant authority from Arsenal’s point of view and what seemed like meek surrender from the away side. The red-and-whites were quicker to the ball, firmer in their tackles, better in their decision-making, but unfortunately for them none of the aforementioned winning battles showed up with a change in the scoreboard.
Not that they didn’t go close. In the early stages of the game, Arteta floated in a beautiful corner that van Persie seemed destined to head into the net; but Vermaelen somehow got in the way and the ball bounced off the Arsenal defender to deny them the lead.
City weren’t helped by Yaya Toure picking up a niggle and being substituted early doors; nor did the volatile Balotelli help their cause, going into late tackles on Sagna and Song, with the latter being a very nasty challenge for which Martin Atkinson would surely have sent him off had he seen the incident.
City had the occasional foray forward, which ended with tame corners or Aguero being caught offside. The most dangerous situation they cooked up was a punt forward which sent Balotelli clear, only for Szczesny to come racing out of his goal and clear smartly. Bacary Sagna was finding it especially easy to whip in crosses and make forward runs on the right flank, with Balotelli unwilling to track back and Clichy often being left two on one.
As the half time whistle blew, the teams went into the tunnel with contrasting emotions ; Arsenal regretful of not converting their dominance into something tangible, and City nursing their wounds from a poor forty five minutes.
The second half
Was both different and similar. City had more moments to call their own, with periods of sustained pressure on the Arsenal goal and a spate of corners leading them to believe that a victory was still possible. But when Arsenal started getting into their stride again, City were huffed, puffed and blown away.
The first twenty minutes were pretty staid, with both sides exchanging blows and uppercuts without really going gung-ho. Kieran Gibbs got injured and replaced by the more cavalier Andre Santos, which resulted in an iffier defence but a more potent attack force. In the 62nd minute, Alex Song lofted one of his now-trademark through balls above the City defence and bang onto the head of Robin van Persie, but the Dutchman’s guided effort hit the outside of the post. A few minutes later, he had the ball in the net but the offside flag played spoilsport.
As the match went by, Arsenal’s chance-missing rose in its audacity. In the 76th minute, a low Sagna cross found Walcott in the box; and his first time shot was half-parried by Hart, hit the post and came back into play. Vermaelen slipped and skewed the shot with the goal at his mercy, and Benayoun couldn’t bundle in the leftovers. Arsenal cursed themselves again, City clutched tighter at their magic lockets.
But in the 86th minute, all lockets were rendered null and void. Arteta robbed Barry of possession in the attacking half, stormed forward and thundered a swirling shot into the corner with Hart sprawling. The correct ice-cream flavour had finally been sought out, and Arsenal had ironically scored with their most difficult shot on target. Arteta exulted, Mancini was left stone-faced.
There was still time for some sideshow comedy as Balotelli got himself sent off for a second bookable offense after he clattered into Sagna. As he slowly trudged off the field, one wondered on if his churlish performances in the past few games had cost City the title. It had certainly cost them this game.
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