Manchester City 1 Arsenal 1
With train tickets to Manchester costing in the region of £80 for a return journey, it was car pull time for the trip up the M1 to Eastlands. The conversation in the car drew out a consensus that Arsenal would probably dominate the game, but would need to be clinical when their chance came. Players such as Aguero, Tevez and Balotelli don`t tend to let golden chances slip and Arsenal`s strikers would need to show sturdiness in their finishing to extract points from City.
Having parked up at around 2pm, we decided it was a bit late to be making the journey back into town to find a pub (there really is nothing in Eastlands) settling instead on watching the Liverpool v United game in the away concourse with a pint. Our plans were somewhat foiled by the fact that, a) the turnstiles didn`t open until 2.30pm and b) City don`t show any live game featuring United inside their own stadium. Quite why that prohibition has to be imposed on away fans too, I`m not sure. Especially when one considers that City are charging £51 for a ticket for Arsenal fans nowadays.
Internet rumours had circulated earlier in the day that Thomas Vermaelen had succumbed to 'flu. The tittle tattle appeared to hold true with Laurent Koscielny reinstalled to the starting line up. Arsene went for the canny move of playing Aaron Ramsey on the right, as Arsenal do set up in a 4-4-1-1 formation when they don`t have the ball. Ramsey was, it seems, intended to provide greater possessive diligence in the midfield. The opening exchanges were slow to take shape, City had made several changes from the side that tossed away a late lead at the Bernabeu in midweek and both sides appeared to be getting to know themselves as much as one another.
But one constant for City will always be the danger posed by the brilliant Sergio Aguero. He was the first to cause either defence a problem as he cut inside Carl Jenkinson- who started very nervously- but the Argentine`s shot was dealt with well by Mannone. When we`d spoken pre match about the Gunners taking their big chance when it came, I voiced a preference that any chance fall to Podolski. Instead, when it was carved out on 16 minutes, it fell to the more erratic Gervinho. Ramsey found an enterprising gap that punctured the shield between City`s defence and midfield and slid Gervinho clean through on goal. But the Ivorian`s first touch will be the subject of contention to opta boffins who may be inclined to regard it as a shot on target. Hart raced out to collect Gervinho`s pass back gratefully. The Ivorian also shot into the side netting after eking out a chance for himself.
Much to the amusement of the home fans, some Arsenal fans saw the net ripple and thought the ball had gone in. It had clearly hit the side netting, as most of us were able to see from the South End of the stadium. It really never ceases to amaze me the lack of care some fans have when they watch a game. It`s the same when a ball ripples the net when the offside flag has been up for eons and still some fans cheer unaware. It`s different of course for borderline decisions that happen at a millisecond`s notice, but I`m never surprised with the utter rubbish you hear many speak inside football grounds, when evidence such as this proves they really aren`t watching very closely at all.
But clearly the away side were still game. Ramsey and Jenkinson grew into the game on the right hand side and nullified Scott Sinclair`s contribution to a mere footnote. Jenkinson showed he had dispelled early nerves when he raced upfield to dispossess Lescott next to the by line. Jenks` cut back found Podolski on the edge of the box but on his less comfortable right foot, he leant back and skied the chance. The home side seemed to settle as the half wore on and took the lead five minutes before the interval. Kieran Gibbs could really have done with a "LEAVE IT!" shout from Mannone as he headed a harmless cross behind for a corner. David Silva swung the resulting set piece into the danger area; Lescott rose above Koscielny and Mannone to head into the top corner. "1-0 to the oil rig" was the chant from the away fans.
Arsenal will have been disappointed to have conceded from a corner and much tutting will take place over the zonal marking that allowed it. But Arsenal have conceded once from 28 corners this season. I happen to think it was a very well placed delivery and a great header. (Arteta was on the goal line and still couldn`t get anywhere near it, so Mannone will have had no value on his goal line anyway). Nobody wants to concede from set pieces, but I`ve certainly seen much more shambolic concessions than that. The blues nearly immediately doubled their lead. Jenkinson again showed Aguero outside as he moved towards the box, the Argentine touched the ball back to Dzeko, whose dipping shot was tipped over by Mannone- who, on this occasion, did look a tad too far off his line.
Still, Mancini revealed his concern about Arsenal`s possession in midfield by replacing Sinclair with Jack Rodwell. We`ve all accused Wenger of not really doing tactics in the past, or at least not tailoring a game plan to his opponents, but he foxed Mancini here. City deployed the "rope-a-dope" tactic, encouraging Arsenal onto them. Dzeko moved over to the left, slightly tucking himself in behind Carl Jenkinson on the proviso that the young right back would need to gamble as Arsenal`s need for a goal increased. The Gunners had plenty of possession but struggled to break City down. Arsene threw on Walcott and Giroud for Diaby and Podolski. Diaby endured a frustrating afternoon and I am still to be convinced he is capable of consistency, even if fitness permits. I just can`t shake the impression that he has great feet but scant evidence of a brain. Football is all about opinions I guess, but I rate Ramsey as a superior option in the "go-between" midfield role alongside Arteta and Cazorla.
Meanwhile Per Mertesacker`s performance at the back has shifted Arsenal`s centre half conundrum around the following question; "Who partners Per?" Seven interceptions is a quite astonishing rate. I wrote in my arseblog column this week that Per seems to defend almost on the half turn. It both offsets his lack of pace, but also allows him to swivel out a leg or a limb in pretty much any direction of a 360 degree circumference. Still, as Arsenal pressed City threw their counter attacking operation into life when Yaya Toure galloped through the Arsenal midfield and teed up Aguero, Mannone saved his near post effort as Koscielny threw himself at Aguero`s feet. Strangely, City`s counter attacking operations ceased to have any effect when Dzeko- a willing runner down the left- was replaced by the usually livelier Tevez.
Arsenal`s search for inspiration seemed to have come to fruition when Santi Cazorla set himself and sent a swerving drive towards the corner, only for Joe Hart to thrust his palms skywards and turn the shot aside. You could sense City`s defence were becoming increasingly tetchy with their distribution and Arsenal capitalised. From the resulting corner, Lescott`s poor clearing header fell to the feet of Koscielny. The Frenchman controlled and adjusted his feet before rocketing the ball into the roof of the net. It was a goal that we very much deserved on the balance of play. I think the Gunners might well have had the taste of blood in their mouths and convincingly attacked for a winner were it not for what immediately followed.
Mannone clawed aside Kompany`s bicycle kick from Silva`s corner. Koscielny panicked and nudged his clearance straight to the feet of Aguero inside the six yard box. Somehow he contrived to poke the ball wide of the post. It was a big let off and one I think that inoculated the away side from really chasing a winner. That said, Gervinho did clear some space for himself on the edge of the area, but contrived to smash the ball over the bar with Giroud excellently placed for the through ball. In the end, a score draw was a fair result. When you`re trailing the champions away from home with ten minutes left, a draw will leave you feeling the more pleased of the two sides, as undoubtedly Arsenal will be.
Arsenal picked up 24 points from losing positions last season and this week shows it`s a trick that hasn`t deserted us. There`s no question the team is still finding its feet, but nascent signs are promising. There again, it`s all very well showing team spirit and resolve when results are good. The true test of that and our squad depth will come in a period where results down turn- as they inevitably will at some point. For now, Chelsea won`t be feeling too comfortable about visiting us this Saturday. LD.
MANCHESTER CITY: 1.HART, 5.ZABALETA, 4.KOMPANY (c), 6.LESCOTT, 22.CLICHY, 11.SINCLAIR (17.Rodwell H/T), 14.GARCIA, 42.TOURE YAYA, 21.SILVA, 10.DZEKO (32.Tevez `68), 16.KUN AGUERO (45.Balotelli `88). Unused: 13.Kolarov, 18.Barry, 23.Nastasic, 30.Pantilimon.
ARSENAL: 24.MANNONE, 25.JENKINSON, 4.MERTESACKER, 6.KOSCIELNY, 28.GIBBS, 8.ARTETA(c), 2.DIABY (12.Giroud `71), 19.S.CAZORLA, 16.RAMSEY, 9.PODOLSKI (14.Walcott `71), 27.GERVINHO (22.Coquelin `89). Unused: 11.A.Santos, 15.Chamberlain, 20.Djourou, 36.Martinez.