The Arsenal put in one of their gutsiest performances in recent memory at the Etihad Stadium this evening, but return to London empty handed after David Silva’s second half strike proved the difference for Roberto Mancini’s table-toppers.
The last time the Gunners travelled to Manchester only the fans returned to London with any credit. This time the players can hold their heads high. It was an almighty game – a tense, tight, frantic, 90 minutes of end-to-end pre-Christmas action. It will linger long in the memory.
From the offset there were chances. City could have taken the lead after eight minutes when the dangerous and tricky Aguero blazed over. The Argentine wriggled free of his markers on several further occasions, but found Szczesny in dazzling form. The Pole was superb throughout the first 45 minutes claiming balls in the box and holding pretty much every shot. He led from the back.
Having struggled to maintain possession initially, the Gunners eventually settled with Song marshalling the midfield and Ramsey roaming with increasing swagger in the final third. Arteta was quietly effective, Gervinho a terrific outlet on the left and Van Persie proving himself a very physical presence for the City backline.
While Aguero and Silva had chances to break the deadlock for the home side, it was Gervinho who nearly did just that with Arsenal’s first real attack. The Ivorian linked up well with Walcott and Song before arrowing a low drive which forced Hart to scramble the ball past the post. From the resulting corner Ramsey produced another save from the England stopper.
Periods of intense action were interspersed by long spells of midfield scrapping. Szczesny produced a stunning save from a Balotelli shot in the six yard box and then got down well to deny Aguero. At the other end a Van Persie effort was nearly forced in by Ramsey although the Welshman unfortunately made contact with Kolo Toure rather than the ball.
While opportunities in the first half were hard earned and the result of impressive build-up play, it was the pressing and energy shown by both sides that really caught the eye. At the break Graeme Souness on Sky Sports went so far as to describe it as the best game he’d seen this season – high praise given there were no goals at that point.
Two minutes into the second half and Johan Djourou limped off – it was to prove something of a turning point. The Swiss appeared to pull his groin in the first half and was replaced by Miquel. It forced a reshuffle with the young Spaniard going to left-back, Vermaelen moving inside and Koscielny moving to the right.
Five minutes later as the defence came to terms with the change in personnel and responsibilities, City scored. Balotelli beat a rather ragged attempt at offside before smashing a hard shot to Szczesny’s left. The Pole stopped the initial effort but was helpless when the rebound was bundled home by Silva from close range. It was a bit of a shambles really.
Within seconds Walcott, who’d been quiet in the first half, nearly levelled with a ferocious long-range effort. Hart tipped the ball over the bar, before Van Persie had a goal disallowed for offside. It was tight. Very tight.
The pace was unrelenting. Aguero had a great shot which beat Szczesny but thankfully raced past the post. Then Nasri went through on goal and instead of shooting played a daft ball across the box which went out for a goal kick. It was a real let off.
Brilliance from Gervinho set up Van Persie. Again Hart saved. Over exuberance from Szczesny after a Silva free-kick saw a quick throw out end up at the feet of Zabaleta. The Argentine subsequently crashed a shot against the post from outside the box. Van Persie was then called offside again as his diving header forced another stop from Hart.
On 68 minutes Walcott, who’d probably been the team’s least effective player, was replaced by Arshavin. He wasn’t happy about it and muttered a few choices words (Theo not Andrei). The Russian’s first taste of the action was an awful cross from a great position on the edge of the City box. It pretty much summed up his 2011 and he didn’t get much better.
Arteta received a yellow and nearly a second in the space of a minute. Then we had a half-hearted claim for a penalty when the ball hit Richards’ hand. A shattered looking Mertesacker was replaced by Chamakh as Wenger threw caution to the wind at a time when Mancini took off Balotelli and sent on the more conservative Milner.
In the final ten minutes the Gunners desperately pushed forward but found it tough trying to conjure a clear cut chance. Arshavin snatched at an effort with two minutes left – he should have done much better. A clever free-kick then saw Vermaelen whack an effort goalwards which Hart AGAIN saved. Deep into stoppage time the Belgian took it upon himself to try one last effort only for his curled effort to go wide. It was brave stuff from the Gunners, but not quite enough.
The unbeaten run may be over, but we’ve no time to dwell. It’s Aston Villa on Wednesday night and with Song banned (after picking up his fifth booking), Djourou likely to be out and Mertesacker a possible doubt we’re going to have to dig deep to get back on track.