Manchester City v Arsenal was a game that neither side could afford to lose. So often such mutual desperation results in a boring stalemate. On this occasion it was a pulsating end-to-end thriller.
Two years ago today Roberto Mancini arrived at Manchester City taking over a side that seemed addicted to drawing, particularly at home. His hapless predecessor Mark Hughes liked nothing better than sending home the Manc masses exasperated following yet more dropped points against the likes of Fulham and Burnley. It was starting to become City’s ‘thing’.
A year ago tomorrow however marks the last occasion they lost at the Etihad, and from those 28 games a remarkable 26 have been won.
The manner of these triumphs have understandably varied in style depending on the circumstances, opposition and where Mancini’s side were on an ever ascending trajectory to excellence. The continuous spree of victories during the latter half of last season were achieved mainly through hard-fought solidity; a defence obsessed with clean sheets, a power base of three minders before them shaking teams down and offering rumbustious protection, and the individual marauding of Tevez to supply the necessary magic. Once the all-important Champions League berth had been safely navigated however a breath-taking transformation has taken place with the caution dispensed and all-out attack favoured. The seven straight home wins prior to this weekend have been accrued through wonderful verve and adventure of such uncontained devilment that during City’s last home fixture Norwich paid them the ultimate compliment – they came solely with the intention of not being battered. They left nursing a five-goal thumping.
To an extent – and only to an extent because we are simplifying and generalising here – 2011 has been the tale of two Cities. Neither though have once been ransacked or plundered.
Against Arsenal – for the first time - both of these contrasting strategies merged, as the showbiz goal-hauls and free-flowing splendour of late was allied with the solid foundations so meticulously laid down by Mancini last season. Regimented graft was added to the craft.
There have been some astonishing performances and results since August but this was arguably City’s most complete outing to date
Kompany was back to his magisterial best, commanding an imperious in a rearguard that was tested more than at any point this term save for the dismantling in Munich. Gareth Barry was outstanding, combining a prodigious work-ethic with the intelligent nous and movement rarely attributed to an Englishman in such a role. He is the anti-Cattermole and should be treasured as such. Ahead of them the new-look ingénues schemed and dazzled with their usual menace, Nasri especially thriving on the resounding boos from Gunners fans who, according to Kolo Toure, hurl such venom because they still love him.
There have been some astonishing performances and results since August but this was arguably City’s most complete outing to date and it needed to be. Following United’s dismissal of QPR the nascent title race has already become a toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow war of attrition. The fun times are largely over and the exhibition stuff will have to be put away until next August. Now it’s a long, nervy grind to the finish line.
Arsene Wenger travelled north knowing he had to somehow end City’s proud undefeated record or else see Arsenal’s own title hopes extinguish and to that end the wily prof drew on every ounce of his vast experience. Depleted of recognized full-backs he employed four stoppers. What they lost in width was more than compensated by a quartet that frustrated City’s attacking intent for long periods. Their midfield three meanwhile continued their impressive bonding – who will Wilshere replace when he returns in February? – and though Van Persie was quiet by his standards his ominous threat was prevalent throughout, shared by one of the best games I’ve seen Gervinho have in a red and white jersey.
More than formation or personnel however was Arsenal’s game-plan. They committed themselves to a do-or-die desperate bid to claw themselves back into title contention that resulted in a pulsating, engrossing clash that left all those who watched it thoroughly knackered by the end. They may theoretically now be out of the running but they battled with the spirit of the champions they once were and will presumably be again.
Were it not for the acrobatics of Hart, a couple of spurned chances and the nullification of Walcott from the warrior Zabaleta then City’s home record may well have tumbled.
As it is Mancini can enjoy his two year anniversary today with his side topping the league. It has thus far been a marriage made in heaven.
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