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Arteta’s bullet shoots down City’s title hopes

Arsenal 1 Manchester City 0

Arteta 87; Balotelli sent off 90

Arsenal left it late to clinch a game they had dominated throughout, but Mikel Arteta‘s late bullet strike effectively killed off Manchester City‘s title hopes, while giving his own side three crucial points to propel them back into third place. City were lacklustre and rarely threatened as they slipped eight points behind leaders Manchester United with just six games remaining. Meanwhile Arsenal reasserted their position as four teams – Spurs, Chelsea and Newcastle being the others – battle it out for the last two Champions League spots.

Arsene Wenger made just one change from the side which lost 2-1 at QPR last weekend, bringing in Yossi Benayoun on the left in place of Aaron Ramsey, who dropped to the bench.

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny– Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Arteta

Walcott – Rosicky – Benayoun

van Persie

Arsenal lost 1-0 to City twice in the space of three weeks before Christmas. A defeat at Emirates Stadium in the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup was followed by another narrow loss at the Etihad Stadium in the league.

Arsenal ahead on points, but not on the scoreboard

Arsenal had much the better of a feisty first half. They made all the early running, testing the mettle of City’s defence with some slick passing and penetrating runs down both flanks, courtesy of Kieran Gibbs on the left and the Theo Walcott/Bacary Sagna axis on the other side. Joe Hart charged decisively off his line to punch clear an early corner, while Tomas Rosicky‘s volley was deflected behind.

Vermaelen inadvertently prevented van Persie from scoring the opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

City needed a goalline clearance from an unexpected source to keep the game scoreless after 15 minutes. Mikel Arteta‘s inswinging corner was met firmly by the forehead of Robin van Persie. With Hart beaten, the ball bounced off Thomas Vermaelen‘s shoulder, against the crossbar and away.

The visitors had already lost Yaya Toure early on through injury and were fortunate not to see Mario Balotelli dismissed after the striker planted his studs into the knee of Alex Song. It was a dangerous challenge, warranting a straight red – Balotelli was not even cautioned, although he would eventually be booked after his third studs-up challenge of the half.

Having weathered the early storm for 25 minutes – with Vincent Kompany in brilliant form at the heart of their defence – City gradually worked their way back into the game, as Roberto Mancini pulled James Milner back into the centre to bolster his midfield. Balotelli – this time with boots rather than studs – offered the most significant threat for the visitors. His goal-bound shot from a corner was blocked by Gibbs. Then a simple long ball over the top nearly caught Arsenal cold on the counter, but Wojciech Szczesny sprinted decisively 15 yards outside his area to snuff out the danger.

Arsenal, however, continued to dominate the ball as they kept probing away at City’s defences. But 0-0 it remained at half-time.

Arteta’s bullet strikes at the heart of City’s title aspirations 

City created the first notable chance of the second half. Samir Nasri‘s dangerous cross saw Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaletta get in each other’s way as they both rose for the ball, resulting in a looping header which an alert Szczesny tipped over.

However the hosts soon regained the ascendancy, despite the loss of Gibbs – yet again – through injury. From the hour mark onwards it was essentially one-way traffic, with only a miscued Balotelli overhead kick briefly stemming a tidal wave of attacks on Hart’s goal as balls rained in from all angles.

Van Persie was denied by his own teammate and the woodwork (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Song’s weighted ball over the top found van Persie alone in the box, but his angled header cannoned off the foot of a post. The Dutch striker then calmly worked an opening in the box and slotted home, only to be – correctly – adjudged half a yard offside. Moments later, his run and drag-back set up Yossi Benayoun, who skewed his shot wide. Nothing quite seems to be coming off for the Premier League’s leading scorer at the moment, who has now gone 435 minutes – nearly five games – without a goal.

City had already had two lucky escapes, but as the game entered its final 15 minutes they enjoyed their biggest slice of fortune thus far. Sagna’s first-time cross was met by Walcott, whose angled shot was turned onto the far post by Hart. The ball rebounded to Vermaelen, who slipped and scuffed his shot as he tried to turn the ball into the open net. Benayoun, under pressure from Joleon Lescott, could not bundle the loose ball in from close range.

Arteta's late strike ensured Arsenal's dominance did not go unrewarded (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

It was increasingly looking like this would not be Arsenal’s day, despite all their pressure. But Arteta had other ideas. With just four minutes of normal time remaining, he sprang forward to nick the ball off David Pizarro‘s toe, advanced into open space and then unleashed a 25-yard rocket which a diving Hart got fingertips to but could not keep out.

It was the least Arsenal deserved for their dominance and enterprise, and things went from bad to worse for City as Balotelli received his second yellow card in the final minute after a reckless tackle on Sagna born of frustration. It was his fourth dismissal in less than two years as a City player.

After one final moment of concern, Arsenal should have finished the game with a two-goal margin which would have been more reflective of the balance of play. In the last of four minutes of injury time, an Aleksandar Kolarov free kick rebounded off the defensive wall. Arsenal broke forward via substitute Aaron Ramsey, who advanced into the area and had time to set himself for an easy finish, but screwed his shot wide with both van Persie and fellow replacement Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain screaming for the ball in the middle.

One goal, however, was enough, and the ages-old refrain of ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ has rarely sounded so sweet. The race for third and fourth remains a close affair, but barring a catastrophic collapse the Premier League trophy now seems destined for Old Trafford.

Post-match reaction and analysis

In his post-match press conference, Arsene Wenger reflected on Arteta’s winner and a strong all-round performance by his side:

It was a very well-taken goal. I think it gave us three points that we deserved because we had a consistent domination in the game. I always felt the goal would come but it was very tight and in the end you feel it is important not to lose. But we kept going and at home recently we have produced some outstanding performances against any team.

He said he believed Balotelli’s first-half challenge on Song merited a red card:

If the referee had television [replays] he would have given him a red card. He was on the fringe, in many situations, he flirted with orange a few times. In the end he got the second yellow card.

And he warned against complacency ahead of Wednesday’s trip to bottom-of-the-table Wolves, who will present a different sort of challenge:

It will be a different game to today. You have to deal now with a team that will fight not to go down so it will demand the same commitment. Wolves will fight for their survival and are dangerous as well.

Arsenal attacked this game with greater commitment than City from start to finish, with the visitors only enjoying a brief good spell at the start of the second half. Their fast start forced Mancini to withdraw Milner from his front three to help stem the tide in midfield, where Arteta, Song and Tomas Rosicky – aided by the energetic Benayoun – had the better of Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and Samir Nasri throughout. It was this central dominance which allowed Arsenal to control 64% of possession and complete nearly twice as many passes as City overall (440 to 224), and nearly three times as many in the attacking third (153 to 53).

Arsenal had the game’s five most prolific passers (and seven of the top eight). Arteta completed more passes than anyone else, while from his more advanced position the bustling Rosicky was busiest in the final third. And, as has become the norm since the return of Gibbs  and the excellent Sagna, Arsenal offered consistent pace and threat out wide, keeping the visitor’s full backs, Zabaletta and former Gunner Gael Clichy, pinned back in their own half.

From the 60-minute mark onward, City appeared to withdraw into their shell, seemingly happy to protect the draw rather than pursue the win. With better finishing and a modicum of luck, Arsenal would already have been in front by then, and out of sight well before Arteta struck the late winner.

The only downside in a surprisingly comfortable defensive performance was Laurent Koscielny‘s tenth booking of the season, which will now see him suspended for the games against Wolves and Wigan. But if – and, with Arsenal, it is always a big if – the team can maintain this level of commitment through those games, they have little to fear ahead of what could be a decisive home game against Chelsea in a fortnight’s time.

Arsenal man of the match: Mikel Arteta. As well as scoring the game-winner, the Spaniard excelled in possession and worked hard defensively. His solidity provides the key cog in a machine in which Song and Rosicky are then able to play a more expansive game.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

4 Responses to Arteta’s bullet shoots down City’s title hopes

  1. Vincent says:

    A gd article up there.As well as Arteta,Benayoun and Song had a great game.

    • Tim says:

      Pretty much the whole start eleven had good games. Even van Persie, although held scoreless, was desperately unlucky to be denied, first by the combination of Vermaelen and crossbar, and then by the post. Yossi had an unshowy game, but I loved his industry – particularly that one moment in the second half where he chased back miles to get in a sliding block to cut out what could have been a very dangerous cross.

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