Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0
It`s December. We`ve now played every side in the op 11 away from home save for Stoke and Liverpool. We garnered no points yesterday but plenty of encouragement. It was a good yardstick for how far we`ve come sine our last trip to Manchester. Whereas Augusts` journey was undertaken in balmy late summer conditions; the alarm clock sounded shortly after 6am to a light sheet of frost on the ground in South London on departure. The first frost of winter. It was a day for double socking, that`s for sure. Plans had been rather frantically made for travel to Milan on Friday and comparing and contrasting deals we`d been able to strike rather dominated the conversation for the journey north. (£80 return since you`re asking).
By the time we had passed Milton Keynes, the sheet of frost had given way to a light blanket of snow. In some kind of weird parallel experience, the weather increasingly brightened as we reached Manchester. (Is there no limit to the Sheikh`s spending?) In recent games against Liverpool and Chelsea, City have started like lightning and this match was no different. They really ought to have been in the lead after 8 minutes. Understandably, Djourou, beginning the game at full back, hadn`t quite found his feet and bowed to his natural tendency to tuck in to the centre. Gervinho too did not make the required effort to track back.
Gareth Barry exploited the space by playing Zabaleta in down the left, his first time cross found Sergio Aguero in space in the area, Vermaelen and Koscielny hared back, but Aguero hacked the ball over the crossbar when a player of his quality would usually score. But the Gunners weathered the storm and managed to eke out their first half chance when van Persie played a reverse pass to Gervinho in space; his shot from a tight angle was comfortably dealt with by Hart. From the resulting corner, van Persie played it to Ramsey on the edge of the area and his shot bobbled through a crowd of players, creeping between legs all the way, only for Hart to turn the goalbound effort around the post. An average goalie would have let it through for sure.
In my view we had the two best goalkeepers in the league on display and Szczesny was quick to show his credentials too. Djourou and Mertesacker between them failed to deal with Richards` swirling cross. Balotelli brilliantly turned himself into space, receiving the looping ball with his back to goal. But by the time he could find a shot from close range, he found the sprawled figure of Szczesny breathing down his neck to block. For Arsenal fans such as I that were weaned in the era of David Seaman, it`s interesting to note our current keeper`s likeness to Schmeichel.
City started to come on strongly as the half drew to a close. Song initially made a good tackle on Aguero, only to dither on the ball and find himself dispossessed again by Aguero. The Argentine exchanged passes with Silva, before motoring past Vermaelen in the area. Fortunately, Szczesny was down smartly and was equal to the low shot. At half time I found myself slightly relieved to be going in at 0-0, but my contention pre match was always that Arsenal rather needed to see the first part of the game out to stand a chance. (My half time mood was slightly more buoyed by the PA selection of Joy Division`s 'Transmission` to blast over the speakers).
Djourou was clearly in some discomfort at the end of the first half. Minutes into the second half, it was clear he couldn`t continue. On came Ignasi Miquel in his place, moving to left back, with Vermaelen switching to the centre and Koscielny moving to right back. In the subsequent adjustment, Arsenal would lose the game. Gervinho was caught in possession high up the pitch. Koscielny tried to make an interception, leaving space in behind him. Barry found Balotelli on the left. Song had raced over to shepherd Balotelli in Koscielny`s absence. The Italian powered past Song and hit a fierce low shot, which Szczesny could only spoon outwards. Vermaelen smuggled the rebound away from Aguero, but Silva escaped Miquel at the back post to poke home on 54 minutes.
It`d have been easy for Arsenal to fold and rue their misfortune at having to shift their back four after yet another full back injury. But they didn`t. The response was almost immediate when Gervinho`s reverse pass found van Persie in the area. Replays suggest the Dutchman was level, but the linesman flagged him offside as he proceeded to chip Joe Hart. Difficult to find blame with the official for such a marginal call; but nevertheless, Arsenal were once again left to curse their ill fortune.
The two sides proceeded to go hell for leather in pursuit of a game changing goal. Aguero fizzed a low shot agonisingly past Szczesny`s post. Whilst Walcott`s dipping shot forced Joe Hart into a save. City ought to have wrapped the game up when Nasri found himself through on goal, but tried a poorly executed pass which whistled past Balotelli. It was the Nasri we ultimately came to know at Arsenal. A tidy and undoubtedly talented player, but one that lacked the bottle to be clinical at the crucial moments.
He`ll win trophies for the year or two that he`s at City, but I don`t think his game will develop, nor will he become the sort of player he is capable of being. I won`t blame him for tripling his money elsewhere, which of us wouldn`t make that choice in our own jobs? But, and I stand to be proven wrong here, I do get the feeling Nasri is going to end up a slightly richer Alex Hleb. The announcement of Nasri as man of the match drew outright laughter from the away support. Conversely, the obviousness of the wind up at the expense of the away fans was the most damning indictment against the player himself. This time last year he was looking like the best player in the Premiership- before he wilted at the business end of the season. A year on and he is relegated to the status of expensive prank.
The Gunners responded by bringing Arshavin and Chamakh into the fray. Two other players who are beginning to look pale imitations of incarnations past. Arshavin is woefully low on confidence, as evidenced by his woeful attempt at an unchallenged first time pass into the penalty area with Ramsey and van Persie in acres of space. Oxlade Chamberlain and Benayoun must have looked on wistfully. The Ox has a long, long way to go in the defensive aspect of his game; but I would venture the 30 year old Arshavin hardly bests him in that department at the moment. It`s not that Arshavin doesn`t care. At the final whistle it was he that furiously motioned several errant players to acknowledge the away support. But he`s clearly in a funk and has been ensconced in it for some time now.
I can appreciate why Arshavin was brought on. Walcott wasn`t at his most effective and Arsenal were experiencing some joy running at the City backline. The Russian is capable of that beguiling slight of foot which could unlock City`s defence. As evidenced with Arsenal`s next chance. Gervinho has a wonderful poise for beating players on the by line. He pushes the ball from one foot to the other. Stops. And just as the defender rocks back on his heels in deference to the motionless ball, he nudges past the off balance opponent. He executed this move to a tee to roar past Richards to the by line, he looked up and found van Persie in the area, but the Dutchman was slightly off balance and Hart collected van Persie`s shot.
The away side found grievance again when Koscielny`s cross struck Micah Richards` arm in the area. It`s the sort of decision you get at home- as Chelsea found themselves against the same opponents on Monday night- but not away from home. As Arsenal found to their cost. Richards` arm protruded slightly away from his body, which makes it a penalty for me. But I accept it`s a difficult call to make.
City were being penned back with Arsenal giving every drop of sweat for the equaliser. Chamakh cleverly nutmegged Richards next to the area; drawing the foul. From the free kick from Arsenal`s left, Arteta rolled back to Vermaelen. His fixing shot came through a throng of bodies, but Joe Hart`s reactions were keen enough to tip the ball over. Aguero might have found himself red carded in injury time, having already been booked; he caught Vermaelen high and late.
The Argentine can thank the Gunners` centre half for immediately springing to his feet and not seeking further repudiation out for his opponent. A lesson I hope that was well viewed by Micah Richards and Gareth Barry, whose 90 minute ear wigging impression at Phil Dowd in an attempt to see Song and Arteta dismissed brought shame on themselves. Thank goodness we have good, honest English pros like Vermaelen to show these continental types like Barry and Richards how to play the game in the right spirit.
Arsenal eked out one last chance when Vermaelen hit a bending shot from twenty yards which whistled just past the post. Arsenal were beaten but left with their pride in tact. City stand a solitary home match against Stoke away from completing 2011 unbeaten at Eastlands (only 2 draws in that sequence). I very much doubt anyone has given them a closer game than we did. It was an incredibly entertaining and rather end to end encounter. The disparity in resources certainly not making itself visible on the pitch. From an Arsenal perspective, it`s a shame we were punished in the few minutes of defensive uncertainty that were thrust upon us. Such is life against a team of the quality of City, who can punish the slightest weakness.
Whilst the individual shouts against us in the final third were hardly scandalous in isolation, put together we can consider ourselves unlucky that both went against us. Had the game been played in N5 rather than M11, we might have got one or both of them in our favour. My hope is that the team are not overly downcast and can put together another unbeaten run. A good deal of the more high octane away days are behind us now, evidence as ever that there is plenty of reason to look forward. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 20.DJOUROU (49.Miquel `47), 4.MERTESACKER (29.Chamakh `82), 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin `69), 27.GERVINHO, 10.v.PERSIE ©. Unused; 1.Almunia, 7.Rosicky, 26.Frimpong, 30.Benayoun.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA