Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday January 6 2011
With a nation suffering a case of back to work blues and already faltering on their New Year fitness regimes, a trip to the pub followed by a top of the table clash at chez Gooner felt timely and just. Though I was rather expecting to see Citeh defend for their lives, I was still rather confident Arsenal would have the guile to break them down. The mood was positive with the pre match pint as Sky Sports News flashed up the news that Arsenal would be sporting an unchanged side. Usually matches between teams so closely grouped in the table begin in a cagey fashion, but Arsenal positively raced out of the blocks.
Inside the first three minutes, Nasri cut in from the left and began to wreak havoc, slipping a ball in the left channel for the unmarked Wilshere. But with the goal seductively winking at Wilshere, he inexplicably tried to pass to van Persie, his low cross missing the Dutchman`s toes by inches. It was a poor decision indicative of Wilshere`s age; the shot was a much more likely option than the pass. Even if Hart had saved his shot, it would likely have rebounded to van Persie anyway. I`m all for altruism in the penalty area, but you have to play the percentages and Wilshere went for diminishing returns. That said; he enjoyed another very good game in midfield. He appeared to learn from the error though as he stung the palms of Joe Hart when a shot opened up for him on the edge of the box. City were reeling from the pace with which Arsenal were attacking and enjoyed a large slab of serendipity on nine minutes. Nasri found van Persie with his back to goal, the Dutchman jinked and swivelled and eked out half a yard of space before sending a shot against the base of the upright with Hart totally foxed. Van Persie still doesn`t look close to the player we know, whether it`s taking him a long time to feel his way back (it`s two months today since he returned from injury), whether it`s World Cup rust or both, I`m not sure. But the chance showed why van Persie will always and should always be first choice, he`s the only centre forward we have who can fashion himself a chance from absolutely nothing.
The Gunners continued to press as Nasri continued to bring the game to the Citeh back line, bundling the ball into the box, Walcott scrambled with Richards inside the area, causing the ball to pop up to Fabregas, whose calm lay off found Wilshere, but he hit his close range shot straight at a relieved Joe Hart. The Gunners continued to beat down the door of a beleaguered City defence, van Persie worked a short free kick to Wilshere, who in turn found Walcott in the right channel but Walcott dragged his shot just wide. City made a rare foray forward when Barry`s ball over the top found Tevez, who looked half a yard offside, on the right hand side of the box, but he volleyed high and wide. City had predictably set up for the point and as the pace of the game began to inevitably mellow, you felt Arsenal had really missed their chance. But their best chance was still to come, Samir Nasri made hay down the left hand side before tucking a pass inside to Fabregas and the Spaniard`s shot hit the base of the post and came out; the ball was not far from clipping the heels of the stranded Hart on its way out too. You sensed it wasn`t Arsenal`s night. City`s last genuine attack of the match arrived just before half time when Micah Richards` cross caused consternation in the Arsenal area, the ball dropped invitingly for Tevez but he hit a bouncing volley wide of the upright.
The Gunners had a decent penalty shout turned away from referee Mike Jones who, frankly, looked a little out of his depth and, much in the style of Howard Webb, tried to bumble through the game without making decisions. Walcott raced to the by line on the right hand side, his cross appeared to be blocked by Vincent Kompany`s arm but neither the linesman nor the referee could be coerced into making a decision. From where I was sitting, Kompany had his arm outstretched and the rules deem that if a player obtains a clear advantage by handling the ball, that it should be a penalty. For my money, without the intervention of the arm, the cross would have gone passed Kompany. But I admit I have yet to see any highlights and could be mistaken. Half time came and there was a general atmosphere of encouragement from the performance, but a sense of foreboding that we had not scored. City continued with their game plan in the second half and Arsenal looked much shorter on energy and inspiration. Save for a rasping van Persie drive from 30 yards, which was expertly tipped away by Joe Hart, the Gunners could not break the Citizens ten man wall of muscle down. Arsene threw Arshavin and Bendtner into the fray but to no avail, my only complaint of the night from an Arsenal perspective was that Bendtner was hardly going to make a difference from the left flank. If he was going to come on it had to be to try and make life difficult for City in the penalty area.
The match ended with a flashpoint out of keeping with the spirit of a fair game. Zabaleta did peeve some Arsenal players in the remaining minutes when he tried to make out that Song`s light brush had smashed his ankle into tiny pieces in order to waste time. Jo pulled a similar trick ten minutes earlier and again, referee Mike Jones did not know how to deal with the situation, bemusedly inviting the physio on, presumably unaware that he would have aided Jo`s recovery in double quick time by developing a backbone and instructing play to continue. It was weak officiating. The ball looked to be bouncing out of play as Zabaleta blocked off Sagna. Again, referee Mike Jones stood and did nothing, allowing a flashpoint to develop as the players squared up. The incident took place directly beneath me and I don`t think I need to see it again to make a judgement. Having done so well not to react to Bowyer`s provocation on Saturday, Sagna was stupid to move his head forwards towards Zabaleta and invited the red card. Zabaleta was given his marching orders too and I must confess I have no idea what for. Yet another indication of a referee out of his depth. That suspicion was confirmed when he only played 3 of the 4 minutes allotted injury time, failing to add on the extra minute within the stoppage time for Tevez`s casual stroll off the pitch. (He indicated to Nasri that he would add the time on, but he didn`t. He looked desperate to get the game finished and get home).
The performance was a very good one from the home side, a similar display in the rest of our home fixtures will see us win almost all of them. City`s players were roundly booed by a frustrated home crowd who chided them with the chant of "Boring, Boring City." I did wonder if those that chanted felt a tinge of hypocrisy, I sill remember how Arsenal set up in Torino and Paris en route to the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final. City came for the point and got it and I therefore won`t condemn them. They`ve every right to play for the result they deem to be a good one so long as they do so within the rules and spirit of the game, which they did. City aren`t really looking for the title this year, that shows in their games against the teams around them. In the last two seasons, they haven`t registered a goal in seven games against us, Manchester United or Spurs. Mancini is building a team to win the title in 2012, for now he will accept smashing the piñata of Champions League qualification in 2011, because once that glass ceiling is broken, then the fun really begins for City. As for us, we`ve shown an unerring steel in this game from which we should take great encouragement, but we really do need to learn to be more clinical and punish teams when we are in the ascendancy. It took us a hatful of chances before we got the killer second goal at St. Andrews on Saturday too. Defences like City`s won`t let you run them ragged for 90 minutes; we need to treat opportunities in front of goal like gold dust. So Jack, the next time you`re one on one with the goalie on your left foot, f*****g hit it! That said, we were unlucky in front of goal too. A win over Blackpool effectively puts United seven points ahead, but the fixture list is kinder to us than it is to them before May. It`s not over by a long chalk and I`m convinced that we are the ones that will fight United all the way for the title.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE (52.Bendtner `81), 4.FABREGAS©, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin `69), 8.NASRI, 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 15.Denilson, 18.Squillaci, 29.Chamakh, 53.Szczesny.
Date:Thursday January 6 2011
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