It was the proverbial game of two halves for the Carling Cup quarter final between Arsenal and Manchester City. Though neither were particularly entertaining.
What a strange contradiction the latter stages of the Carling Cup are. For both Arsenal and Manchester City this was one of the biggest games of the season so far yet it was largely staffed by what used to be called the stiffs. For the duration it showed too. Neither team was able to impose any fluidity or cohesion to their play and it was left to a late breakaway goal of sheer class to settle an encounter that would have otherwise wound down to pens.
Following City’s defeat in Naples and their grim resolve for a point at Anfield there’s been plenty of talk on how they can be beaten these past few days. The general consensus is that you must storm the City strong room in midfield with numbers and deprive them of setting a leisurely rhythm when in possession. So it was strange to see Wenger’s strategy of entrusting two kids in the centre of the park to do the job a trio of adults have struggled with in many previous games. With half an hour gone Mancini – as dogmatic in his instant decision making as ever – hauled off the redundant Kolorov and replaced him with Aguero. There was simply no requirement for a third wheel in there as the experienced wiles of De Jong and Hargreaves were comfortable enough to edge the now straightforward tussle with their two whippersnapper counterparts. For the remainder of the half City dominated and it was an encampment of blue on red. His decision proves once again that he has a tactical mind the equal of any other although ultimately, frustratingly, all the possession amounted to very little. To use a coarse analogy it was all foreplay with no penetration.
It is no co-incidence that it was the Bosnian who came deep and was the architect for City’s late, somewhat undeserving, decider.
Before that however it was the home side who threatened the most. A golden opportunity for Park to show it isn’t just Van Persie who can score for the Gunners was deprived him by an agile reaction stop at close range by Pantilimon. The giant Romanian – he’s so tall he has to crouch to tip shots over the bar – put in a decent shift but his distribution still concerns me. With the ball at his feet and no-one around his decision-making is fudged and he often commits to the wrong option putting his full-backs under unnecessary pressure. If only he had half of Mancini’s decisiveness.
Arsenal’s precocious teen Oxlade-Chamberlain – what a prospect he is – then belted an absolute corker that was destined to be replayed to an Elbow track for November’s goal of the month montage until it was palmed away. Pantilimon almost needed to stretch.
The second period is usually when City begin to quicken the pace and add some cut and thrust to the tippy-tap probing. It is also usually when the goals begin to rain in. This habit stopped against Liverpool and was again absent here with Arsenal now taking control of the game. Players who I’d barely noticed in the opening forty-five minutes – Benayoun, Chamakh – began making meaningful contributions whilst in midfield the advantage switched from brains to legs as Frimpong and Coquelin made their youthful stamina count. Hargreaves understandably wilted as the game progressed so the Dutch enforcer alongside him was forced to abandon his rooted position and chase and scurry. Thankfully, for City’s sake, there was additional assistance in the burly form of Edin Dzeko who never stopped running and put in the type of committed, selfless display from a targetman that all managers dream of. He must have covered more ground in this one game than Ibrahimovic has half-heartedly trekked in his whole career.
It is no co-incidence that it was the Bosnian who came deep and was the architect for City’s late, somewhat undeserving, decider. His throughball put him on his arse and he had a ground floor view of Adam Johnson’s fantastic flick with the side of his boot that presented a bread-and-butter finish for Aguero.
Should United progress past Palace tonight – and there is certainly no guarantee of that occurring – then there’s a one in three chance for a repeat semi-final all-Manchester affair in this competition. It seems strange to say so following our first victory at Arsenal in 36 years but City will have to up their game whoever they are paired with if they want to relish the prospect of Wembley once again.
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