By Richard Clarke
Arsenal climbed back to second place in the Premier League with a crucial 3-0 win at Manchester City on Sunday.
Goals from Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Nicklas Bendtner secured the points in a confidence-boosting afternoon for Arsène Wenger’s side. However the turning point of the game occurred as early as the fourth minute when Manchester City defender Dedryck Boyata was dismissed for a last-man foul on Marouane Chamakh.
The red card certainly affected the Sky Blues but a highly-effective Arsenal side made them pay. They took the lead, recovered when Joe Hart saved a Cesc Fabregas penalty, withstood Manchester City pressure and then pushed on for the three points.
Make no mistake, this game was massive for Arsenal. They had something to prove to themselves as well as others after the defeat at Chelsea earlier in the month.
Although this was not exactly the performance of champions, it was the type of result champions pull off.
At this rate, Wenger’s side WILL be part of the title race until May.
The manager made three changes from the side that has won so handsomely against Shakhtar in midweek. Jack Wilshere started his three-game suspension so Denilson came into central midfield. The fit-again Bacary Sagna was back for Emmanuel Eboue while Andrey Arshavin replaced Tomas Rosicky.
This was not a traditional ‘Big Four’ game but you could argue Manchester City had taken over the position vacated by Liverpool over the course of the last 18 months. And, of course, Wenger's men had built up a poor record in recent seasons against direct title challengers.
That simply had to change.
For all their possession at Chelsea, they had left without the points – and it was only those that would keep Arsenal in the title race.
However while Wenger's men started wonderfully in West London that day, the opening stages at Eastlands would belong to the home side. Manchester City were lively and vibrant – the exact opposite of the way they would end the game.
In the second minute, Carlos Tevez tricked Djourou in to a mistimed challenge on the right. The Argentinean scuttled to the byline and cut the ball back into the heart of the six-yard box. David Silva’s backflick was instant and goalbound. Fabianski thrust out his right hand and clutched the ball on the line.
A couple of minutes later, Yaya Toure broke down the same flank and Sagna hacked the ball away.
Arsenal had made a nervous start and needed a break.
In the fourth minute, they got one.
Fabregas sent Chamakh clear in the right-hand channel with Boyata in hot pursuit. The Moroccan poked the ball clear of the Belgian defender and was brought down just outside the area. As the centre back was the last man a red card was inevitable.
The sides swapped bookings in the minutes that followed. A tense affair was now becoming tetchy too.
Fabianski made a simple save after confusion in the Arsenal defence allowed Tevez a glimpse of goal.
In the 17th minute, Fabregas worked the ball wide to Sagna, whose cross was nodded over by the unmarked Djourou at the near post.
There was a feeling that Arsenal were settling down.
Something that was confirmed by the opening goal a couple of minutes later.
Nasri collected the ball on the right and played it to Arshavin before darting into the area. The Russian waited for his colleague to overlap then fed him the perfect pass. Nasri delayed his shot until Hart was committed and then lifted his shot over the stranded keeper. It was his seventh goal in his last six starts.
The game was now the polar opposite of the first minutes. Manchester City were nervous and inhibited, Arsenal composed.
However the home side might have been level just before the half-hour. James Milner’s ball sent Micah Richards clear on the right. The defender weaved inside and tried to curl a shot into the far corner. Fortunately for Arsenal he sliced his effort wide.
The chance was an anomaly. Broadly speaking the visitors were in command. And they had a chance to strangle the game six minutes from the break when Vincent Kompany clipped Fabregas just inside the area.
The Spaniard stepped up to take the spot-kick. His contact was decent but Joe Hart threw himself to his left to make a fine save. It was the third penalty Arsenal had missed this season.
It was also the shot in the arm that Manchester City had needed. Before half-time Kompany nodded narrowly over the bar from Silva’s corner and, just before the whistle, the Spanish striker miscontrolled a through ball when well-placed.
Both sides went into the tunnel with something to think about. Arsenal had the advantages of a goal and a man but, in reality, were not in complete control. Manchester City had limped through the first half after that double blow but they had created enough to feel they were in with a sniff.
However in the opening moments of the second half, that chance was almost extinguished. The visitors attacked with purpose down the left and, had the ball properly fallen at the feet of Fabregas or Chamakh, Arsenal would have grabbed an early second.
Mancini had made a change at the break – Wayne Bridge for Toure. Six minutes into the second half, he made another – Emmanuel Adebayor for the limping Tevez.
The latter move was guaranteed to shake up the match but it also heralded Manchester City’s best period.
In the 57th minute, Silva darted into the area and, from an acute angle, let fly. It would have found the far corner but for a wonderful touch by Fabianski.
The Arsenal keeper was starting to be over-employed. A couple of minutes later, the Pole missed his punch and Adebayor nodded over the bar.
You sensed it was now or never for Manchester City. They had been chasing the game ever since the sending off and had to redress the balance at this point.
In fact Arsenal would double their lead.
In the 65th minute, Nasri and Fabregas combined on the right of the area and tried to slip in Chamakh. However Bridge got a toe on the ball and it turned into a perfect lay-off for Song, who fired first-time into the top corner.
The goal pretty much sucked the life out of Manchester City. They nearly got an immediate response when Adebayor’s header was brilliantly palmed away by Fabianski. Neither knew the chance had been flagged offside. Apart from that, the visitors were now exerting proper control.
Tomas Rosicky’s dangerous-looking cross toward Denilson was touched aside for a corner and Chamakh thundered a shot high over the bar.
Two minutes from time, substitute Bendtner raced clear on to Nasri’s through-ball and slotted his first goal of the season past Hart.
Fabianski saved wonderfully from Boateng to preserve Arsenal's first Premier League clean-sheet away from home for almost 10 months. In injury time, Sagna steered a shot inches past the far post. .
At the whistle, the home fans threw their anger at referee Mark Clattenburg. However this afternoon the official had got the key decisions right.
All Arsenal had done was take full advantage.
- Djourou Yellow Card
- Nasri Goal!
- Fabregas 83 Yellow Card
- Song Goal! Yellow Card
- Denilson Yellow Card
- Arshavin 69
- Chamakh 83
- Rosicky 69
- Walcott 83
- Bendtner 83 Goal!
- Boyata Red Card
- Kompany Yellow Card
- Toure 46
- De Jong
- Barry 71 Yellow Card
- Tevez 51
- Bridge 46
- Adebayor 51
- Balotelli 71