By Richard Clarke
It was a night of frustration.
Arsenal dominated second-place Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday but just could not score.
Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas both bashed shots against the same post in a breakneck first half. An offisideTheo Walcott hit the other. The early pace ebbed away somewhat in the second period and the key moment came on the hour when the Dutchman was denied by a spectacular save from Joe Hart.
Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta were dismissed in the dying seconds for a clash on the sidelines. The sendings-off sapped the final drops of spirit from a difficult game.
However, Arsène Wenger will be buoyed by the domination his side enjoyed against a direct title rival.
On the evidence of this evening it is Arsenal who will challenge Manchester United more strongly for the Premier League crown over the course of the coming months.
Tonight was Twelfth Night. The evening when tradition demands that the Christmas decorations must come down.
It was the end of the Festive Football and, not surprisingly, Wenger chose the side that had brought his success during that period.
This was the side that had beaten Chelsea and Birmingham so comprehensively. Lukasz Fabianski caused a slight concern when he appeared to hurt his shoulder in the warm-up but it did not prevent him starting the game.
Of course this was second versus third – a massive encounter for both sides.
About 95 per cent of the time, matches of this magnitude start slowly.
This one fell into the other five per cent.
It took desperate defending and a dash of luck to keep out a rampant Arsenal in the opening 15 minutes or so.
Samir Nasri burst in to the area and tapped a pass to the unmarked Jack Wilshere on the right of the area. The Englishman elected not to shoot and tried to find Van Persie at the far post. His cross trickled past the foot of the stretching Dutchman.
Manchester City flew up the other end and James Milner drove wide.
Then Wilshere stung the hands of Hart from the edge of the area.
All this happened with barely 200 seconds on the clock. It was a thunderous start and the pace was just settling down when the game received another jolt.
There seemed little on when Van Persie pirouetted himself some space on the edge of the area in the ninth minute. But then he thumped a rasping left-foot shot against the base of the post.
The visitors arrived at Emirates Stadium with the best defensive record in the top flight but they seemed to be struggling with Arsenal this evening.
In the 11th minute, Nasri and Theo Walcott created a melee in the penalty area. Eventually the ball found its way to Wilshere 12 yards out. His sidefoot shot was clutched on the line by the grateful Hart.
The game could not maintain that pace - and it didn’t. But, despite the lull, Arsenal were on still top.
In the 23rd minute, Wilshere and Van Persie combined over a right-wing free-kick to give Walcott an ounce of space in the area. The winger drove his cross-shot just wide.
Manchester City were offering little of substance but they rallied as the half-hour approached. Gareth Barry’s free-kick sailed over Sagna and Alex Song had to bundle behind from a Carlos Tevez cutback. Seconds later, Van Persie won a crucial back-post header when surrounded by three visiting players.
In the 30th minute, Nasri darted inside and found Fabregas. His drive hit the same piece of post that Van Persie had rattled earlier. The rebound flew across goal and fell to Walcott who fired against the other post. The latter effort would not have counted. The Englishman had been flagged offside.
Walcott was having another eye-catching game. Six minutes before the half-time whistle he raced through in the right-channel and reached the byline. His cross certainly hit the hand of Vincent Kompany. Referee Mike Jones presumably thought the Manchester City defender was so close he could not have got it out of the way.
In injury time, Walcott weaved inside and a Fabregas shot was deflected over by the diving Nigel de Jong.
It was another chance for Arsenal in a half they had dominated. Their performance had been fine. The only problem was that they had not secured the lead they so richly deserved.
The tide was generally in the same direction after the restart but the current was weaker.
Van Persie drove into the sidenetting in the 52nd minute but by now the visitors were offering much more of a blockade. And when they did get through, Hart blocked their path.
On the hour, Van Persie tried his luck from 25 yards and the England keeper threw himself to his right to turn the ball aside. A fantastic save.
With 21 minutes left, Wenger replaced Walcott with Andrey Arshavin. It produced more of the same frustation so, with 10 minutes left, he brought on Nicklas Bendtner for Wilshere.
But the story continued.
In the final minute of full time, Sagna and Zabaleta squared up. Both received their marching orders.
Van Persie’s free-kick forced another block from Hart in injury time but this was one of those nights for Wenger’s men.
- Sagna Red Card
- Wilshere 81
- Walcott 69
- van Persie
- Arshavin 69
- Bendtner 81
- Zabaleta Red Card
- Barry Yellow Card
- De Jong Yellow Card
- Tevez 90
- Jo 64
- Boateng 90
- Johnson 64