Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday April 9 2012
With Tottenham drawing what was realistically the toughest fixture they have left at Sunderland and Chelsea invoking some kind of offside amnesty to beat Wigan, victory over Manchester City became essential. My own feelings were that if United were to defeat QPR earlier in the day, our prospects would be aided with a City side that have looked on the brink of self destruction for weeks. United too got some help from generous / incompetent officiating, but in doing so, my confidence grew that we could win the game. I wasn`t overly surprised to see Benayoun selected on the left. He tends to play in the bigger games because he solves two problems, he defends and attacks well. However, Mancini, as is his wont, was overly cautious in his selection, opting for Zabaleta at right back over Richards. It`s this caution that has crept into what was beginning to look like a fearless, free flowing City side that costs his team the title this year.
Arsenal began the game on the front foot with City looking to play compactly from the beginning. Sagna`s cross from the right was deflected to the edge of the area. Gibbs` wits were keen as he pounced on the loose ball, heading to Rosicky. The Czech`s volley deflected off of Kompany and looped just wide. Arteta swung the resulting corner to the front post, Koscielny went all Steve Bould on our arses with the front post flick on, van Persie met it with a firm header and Hart beaten all ends up. But the ball hit the back of the leaping Vermaelen and diverted onto the crossbar. Rosicky could only spoon the rebound over. It was a serendipitous escape for City.
But perhaps the next piece of fortune was Arsenal`s- albeit in unwanted circumstances. Yaya Toure hobbled off after a kneecap on kneecap collision with Song and was unable to continue. Essentially, this meant Sergio Aguero was starved of any kind of support from midfield for the remainder of the game. City weren`t carrying a great deal of threat, though Pizarro`s sweeping long ball looked set to find Balotelli, only for Szczesny to come rushing from his goal with a saving clearance. Since Szczesny`s installation into the team, Arsenal`s defending from set pieces has improved. But likewise balls over the top of our high defence have long been an issue. Szczesny is positive and assertive, meaning he`s very quick from his line. Compared with Almunia`s anxiety coming from his goal, which saw him humiliated a few times. Szczesny is a modern keeper in that his distribution is excellent and he fulfils the sweeper keeper role to perfection.
City appear to have been feeling the title heat in 2012, not just in the caution that Mancini curiously reintroduced to their play, but as egos have gone into overdrive. None more so than Mario Balotelli who seemed to conduct a 90 minute personal crusade to get himself an early bath. That it took Martin Atkinson 89 minutes to execute his wish is nearly as appalling as Balotelli himself. An intentional, studs up lunge, aimed purposely at Song`s kneecap was missed by Atkinson. That the referee didn`t see it is barely understandable, but Darren Cann- his assistant- was eight yards away. Either he wasn`t assertive enough to make the call, or else his eyesight failed him. Either way, he shouldn`t be officiating at this level whichever of those hardships is true. The F.A. really ought to be adding three matches to his current suspension tally anyway.
The hot headed Italian almost committed the ultimate injustice when he connected with Barry`s low corner and toe ended it goalwards, but Song was on hand to block. After then booting the post in frustration, having already thrown the ball away in dissent and tried to maim Song, he was eventually cautioned in first half injury time for a high challenge on Sagna. At the beginning of the second half, City showed some attacking intent for the only time in the game. Nasri`s cross drifted to the back post towards Aguero, but Zabaleta got in his way, causing him to loop his header softly towards the goal, making Szczesny`s task of tipping the ball over all the easier. It was City`s sole effort on target.
Soon after Kieran Gibbs had to come off injured. Again. I`m not sure what the affliction was or its ramifications, but it does look increasingly like the boy is made of hob nobs. I hope it`s just 'growing pains.` But after an initial ten minute flurry, the second half was again dominated by a more assertive Arsenal side. Once again Alex Song picked out an inch perfect through pass which sailed over the head of Kompany and into the path of van Persie, but his header hit the base of the post. Arsenal would come closer still when Sagna tucked a cross back for Walcott. His angled right footed shot was tipped onto the post by Hart, Vermaelen slipped as he went to sweep the rebound goalwards, but it still bobbled to Benayoun, who clumsily toed the ball towards the net from two yards, only to see it drift wide via the post off of Lescott`s calf. Another huge let off for the visitors.
City didn`t seem to appreciate that they needed to win the game. The egos were again all of a flutter when Carlos Tevez ("he plays when he wants" jibed the North Bank) was introduced. As he came on, Edin Dzeko, who had also been warming up, tossed his bib to the ground in fury and sloped back to the bench. All for one and one for all. Balotelli narrowly did not connect with an overhead kick attempt from Clichy`s cross, but other than that, the away side were being pressed back by a surging Arsenal. They finally got the reward their performance deserved on 87 minutes. Barry played the ball to Pizarro from the left back position. Arteta hunted the Chilean down, nicking the ball, before taking a stride forwards and pile driving a low shot into Hart`s bottom corner from 25 yards. In response, the Arsenal fans conducted a mocking Poznan salute. All chants of "you are our feeder club" vanished from the away enclosure.
City had barely the time or the gumption to offer a response. Zabaleta`s looping cross was tipped away from Balotelli`s head by the fingertips of Szczesny, as the ball broke loose to Sagna, Balotelli hacked Sagna down and he was awarded a second yellow. He had offended enough for two red cards prior to that. Mancini angrily told his errant striker to get off the pitch. Joe Hart`s reactionwas apposite. The Gunners might even have added a second, which their performance would have warranted. Kolarov`s free kick was charged down, Santos nipped in ahead of Pizarro to the loose ball and Arsenal broke. Rosicky manoeuvred the ball to Ramsey, who motored into green space on the left hand side. He had van Persie and Chamberlain to his right, but instead cut back, dummying past Tevez, before smashing the ball unceremoniously high and wide. It`s no great secret that his final product in front of goal has been a little skewiff this season. I had the impression he is trying to force it too much at the moment.
In the end, it had no bearing on the result and the Gunners grabbed a deserved victory. It was a result of a high octane pressing game that pushed City back for around 80 minutes. 64% possession, thirteen shots to City`s five. Mancini`s men have wilted under the lights, which is bizarre when you think of the liberated side that handed out away day shoeings at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. Mancini`s natural caution has seen them win only 4 away games since that day at Old Trafford. Arsenal, meanwhile, did everything they didn`t do at Loftus Road last week. They moved with urgency, they made themselves available to team mates. They harried and closed down. When City lost Toure, they lost their only genuine means of support for Aguero. Milner, Barry and Pizarro aren`t the most enterprising of midfielders and Clichy and Zabaleta are their most defensive full back options. It allowed Arsenal to pin City back. It was somewhat fitting that the goal came as a direct result of Arteta simply harrying and closing down a City player. Arsenal have once again put themselves in pole position for 3rd, but this attitude simply has to carry over into the Molineux on Wednesday now. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS (11.A.Santos `56), 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 7.ROSICKY, 14.WALCOTT (15.Chamberlain `86), 30.BENAYOUN (16.Ramsey `78), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski, 25.Jenkinson, 29.Chamakh.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Monday April 9 2012
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