By Richard Clarke
These are tough times for Arsenal.
Arsène Wenger’s side arrived at the City of Manchester Stadium without captain William Gallas and left it with a Premier League mountain to climb after slipping to their fifth defeat of the season.
The crucial goal came from Stephen Ireland at the end of a desperately disjointed first half. Injury-hit and inexperienced, Arsenal did their best to remedy matters after the restart but, in the 56th minute, a delicious finish from Robinho took the game away from them.
A late Daniel Sturridge penalty skewed the scoreline too much in Manchester City’s favour. But the fact remains that Arsenal have to quickly rediscover their spark and their winning habit if they are to have any influence in the title race from here on in.
All the pre-game talk was about Gallas. The back pages had suggested the Frenchman had not boarded the bus to Manchester – and so it proved.
His absence meant Manuel Almunia captained the side on his 100th appearance for the club.
The lack of Gallas only added to Wenger’s problems this afternoon. He was already without Kolo Toure (calf), Cesc Fabregas (suspension), Theo Walcott (shoulder), Emmanuel Eboue (knee), Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) and Eduardo (ankle). While Emmanuel Adebayor was ruled out on the eve of the game after picking up an ankle injury on international duty.
Robin van Persie was back after a ban. Johan Djourou and Alex Song also came into the side while Gavin Hoyte was handed his Premier League debut at right back.
The average age of the side was 23 while the bench was pure Carling Cup - an indication of Arsenal’s injury list going into this crucial encounter.
But while Wenger might have appeared to have the world on his shoulders ahead of the game, the weight would lift slightly with a win of any sort. However another defeat would just put stones in his pockets.
It had been a heavy few days and Arsenal needed to lighten the mood.
Manchester City had problems too so, perhaps understandably, both sides began the game like they were lacking in confidence. It took a full 15 minutes from either team to call a keeper into action. That came when Ireland thumped a low angled drive into the chest of Almunia.
Arsenal were competitive but toothless. Samir Nasri had some moments on the left but they came to nothing.
Manchester City were barely any better. Mark Hughes’ side seemed bereft of inspiration having taken just one point from their previous four games.
The match was a mess for a full 30 minutes and only livened up in the final quarter of the first half.
Darius Vassell crossed low for Benjani to slide a shot inches beyond the far post. Ten minutes before the break, Nasri’s free-kick was parried out to Bendtner whose backheel fell to an unmarked Song eight yards out. The Cameroon midfielder dragged his shot wide when he should at least have hit the target.
It was proving to be meagre Premier League fare. Neither side had much control on proceedings and they lacked the invention to change the situation.
Even Manchester City’s goal on the whistle was desperately scrappy. Benjani fed Ireland who tried to bundle his way through the Arsenal defence. Djourou got a touch to divert the ball into path of Clichy. With Silvestre closing in, the left back could only slice to the ball back into the path of Ireland who clipped it over the advancing Almunia.
As poor as they had played, it was hard on Arsenal.
Within two minutes of the restart, the visitors had created more than they had in the first 45. Diaby found space and blazed a shot wide then Clichy sent over a swirling cross into the centre and an off-balance Bendtner volleyed over the bar.
A couple of minutes later Van Persie whipped a free-kick into the side netting.
Arsenal were attacking and on top. So Manchester City’s second came against the run of play. Van Persie was muscled off the ball by Shaun Wright-Phillips in midfield. He threaded a ball forward for the sprinting Robinho. The Brazilian still had a lot to do but his chip over Almunia was exquisite.
Arsenal had it all to do.
Wenger threw on Aaron Ramsey immediately and the Welshman helped set up Bendtner to fire straight at Hart.
However the second goal had effected Arsenal’s youngsters and Manchester City piled on the pressure.
Robinho had the ball in the net soon afterwards only for the strike to be ruled out for offside. Then, with 17 minutes left, the Brazilian had claims for a penalty when his drive hit the arms of Denilson.
The game was now wide open. Manchester City were confident enough to play the ball through the middle, Arsenal were chasing the game so had to chance their arm.
Robinho profited the most. With 12 minutes left, he raced clear rounded Almunia and only a desperate Djourou prevented a third by blocking the ball on the line.
It was the Brazilian’s last contribution of a sparkling afternoon. He got a knock in the act of shooting and was replaced by Dietmar Hamann.
Arsenal stayed competitive until the end and even had the ball in the net just before full-time when Van Persie flicked the ball away from Hart as he took a goal-kick and planted it home. The Dutchman was booked for his trouble.
In injury time, Djourou was somehow adjudged to have fouled substitute Daniel Sturridge on the byline and the youngster scored from the spot.
It made the scoreline harsh on Arsenal but, right now, little is going their way.
It is a time for belief and at least the travelling fans showed that quality with a stirring showing from the stands.
The team will need them in the wake of this result.
- Hoyte 58
- Diaby 69
- Song Yellow Card
- Ramsey 58
- Vela 69
- Vassell 73
- Ireland Goal!
- Robinho 81 Goal!
- Mwaruwari 87
- Hamann 81
- Sturridge 87 Goal!
- Elano 73