By Richard Clarke
Emmanuel Adebayor scored two goals and made another as Arsenal secured a crucial victory at Manchester City on Saturday.
The Togolese striker clipped home Bacary Sagna's cross in the ninth minute and Alex Hleb's cut back three minutes from time to give him 11 strikes in his last eight games.
Inbetween those efforts he also nodded down Gael Clichy's swirling cross for Eduardo to hook home Arsenal's second goal midway through the first half.
Manchester City responded immediately when Gelson Fernandes fired in after Verdan Corluka robbed Clichy. And the home side did threaten periodically after the interval.
But Arsenal always had the game under control and, in Adebayor, they have undoubtedly the best forward in the country right now.
His second at death secured the points and the final stages of the game were played out with the visiting fans singing his name.
At full time we did not know the full significance of this result as Manchester United and Chelsea were still to play.
But Arsenal - and particularly Adebayor - had done their part in style.
The 14 outfield players used at the City of Manchester Stadium on Saturday were, according to Wenger, the only ones he had. In all nine players were out.
Manuel Almunia (thumb) and Gilberto (back) dropped out on Friday. Tomas Rosicky (hamstring), Denilson (hamstring) Johan Djourou (groin) and Robin van Persie (thigh) already had injuries while Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Alex Song were on international duty.
Apart from Almunia, Wenger's side was the same one that had beaten Newcastle in midweek. Jens Lehmann's appearance was his first in the Premier League since August 19.
There had been a snow overnight in Manchester and it was bitterly cold for this lunchtime kick-off. However, with Sir Alex Ferguson's side at Tottenham and Chelsea at Portsmouth, all three title contenders were facing tough games this afternoon.
An Arsenal victory in the early game would leave the others playing catch-up. It was no time for a cold start.
But that was so nearly how it turned out. In the sixth minute, Fernandes clipped a ball forward and Stephen Ireland beat the offside trap. Had the Manchester City midfielder shown a little more confidence he may have been able to touch the ball past the advancing Lehmann. However his indecision allowed the keeper time to gather the ball.
That was the closest the home side would come to leading this afternoon as, two minutes later, Arsenal went in front. Hleb won the ball in midfield and found Fabregas. He sent Sagna scampering into the area on the right side. The full back showed wonderful tenacity and strength to muscle past two defenders and cut the ball back to the near post. Adebayor's shot hit Micah Richards, looped over Joe Hart and dropped silently into the net.
The Arsenal fans were positioned at the other end and they did not register the goal for a couple of seconds. They soon made up for their hesitancy.
The strike was Arsenal's 50th in the Premier League this season, 17 of which had now been supplied by Adebayor.
Diaby made an important headed clearance from Martin Petrov's free-kick shortly afterwards but the visitors were starting to take control.
Midway through the half, Eduardo found space on the left but decided against a first-time shot. Instead he passed square to Adebayor who then found Hleb. Finally Fabregas saw his shot deflected out for a corner. A wasted opportunity but, overall, Arsenal were cutting through the home defence with ease and second was in the offing. It arrived in the 26th minute.
The excellent William Gallas won possession from Petrov and a sweeping move found Clichy whose high hanging cross was nodded down by Adebayor at the far post. The Togolese striker had drawn the attention of the Manchester City defence so when the ball came down Eduardo had time to chest it down and hook home. A superb team goal.
Arsenal were playing wonderfully and deserved their lead but they would not be allowed to cruise home this afternoon.
Three minutes later, Clichy tried to shepherd the ball away from Corluka on the byline but the Croat won possession. He cut the ball back to Fernandes who threaded his shot into the net through a crowded area.
However the home team failed to build on their goal. Before the break Adebayor forced a fine save from Joe Hart and Elano had to clear off the line - both from headers. Inbetween those chances, Gallas flashed an effort across the face of goal from a corner.
Petrov fired a shot wide just before the break. When the whistle blew Arsenal were in control of a disjointed Manchester City side but had yet to put them out sight.
The home side were better after the break but Lehmann was rarely troubled in the opening stages. Gradually Arsenal began to create pressure with a string of corners. Just before the hour, Hleb crossed from the right, Adebayor touched the ball on and Fabregas, leaning back, sidefooted the ball over the bar.
Five minutes later, the Spaniard sent the striker through with Richard Dunne and Richards in pursuit. All three ended up in a heap in the area but, despite protests from the away fans, referee Andre Marriner waved away penalty appeals from the crowd.
Substitute Darius Vassell then went clear, forcing the sliding Lehmann to hack clear and Elano drifted a shot over.
Manchester City had certainly made the second half a more even affair. However, when they got in promising positions they did not have the ingenuity to create a decent chance.
Arsenal might have killed game with a breakaway 15 minutes from time but Eduardo's ball was nudged off course by Michael Ball when Fabregas was waiting in anticipation at the far post.
Nine minutes from time the Spaniard did get a sight of goal but he crashed his effort a few feet wide.
But Arsenal had been threatening a second goal for some time. It arrived just before the end when Hleb broke up the right and squared the ball for Adebayor to tap a shot home.
- Hleb 89
- Eduardo Goal!
- Adebayor Goal! Goal!
- Hoyte 89
- Petrov Yellow Card
- Hamann 74
- Elano Yellow Card
- Fernandes Goal!
- Ireland 83
- Sturridge 55
- Geovanni 74
- Mpenza 83
- Vassell 55