By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Mikel Arteta fired home a spectacular 87th-minute winner as Arsenal strengthened their grip on third place by beating Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on Sunday.
A game that neither side could afford to draw seemed to be heading precisely that way before the Spaniard robbed David Pizarro, strode forward and beat Joe Hart from 25 yards.
The crucial strike may have come late but, make no mistake, Arsenal entirely deserved their win.
Arsène Wenger’s side dominated pretty much throughout and hit the woodwork through Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott.
Manchester City threatened only briefly at the start of the second half and their title challenge now looks all but over. Their disappointing day ended in dismal fashion when Mario Balotelli was sent off.
Arsenal, however, are now two points clear of Tottenham in third place and, just as importantly, showed no ill-effects from their own disappointment at QPR last weekend.
They hold their future in their own hands – and that is all you can ask for with just six games to go.
Wenger made one change from the side that had seen that seven-game winning run end so abruptly at Loftus Road. Aaron Ramsey dropped out and Yossi Benayoun came in.
It meant Arsenal were fielding exactly the same XI that had beaten Tottenham at Emirates Stadium – perhaps the last game of a similar magnitude on this pitch.
This was the final fixture of the first Premier League round over the Easter period. Both sides had work to do.
Arsenal had dropped a place after Tottenham’s draw at Sunderland on Saturday. Subsequent wins by Chelsea and Newcastle had also squeezed the pressure in the race for Champions League football.
Meanwhile, Manchester City came into the game eight points adrift of their cross-town neighbours after the Red Devils had beaten QPR at Old Trafford a few hours earlier.
Mancini had said that, in such circumstances, defeat this afternoon would kill off his side's title chances. It was hard to disagree.
However, they did not start as if their season depended on the 90 minutes that would follow. In fact, Arsenal owned the first 15 minutes. They pressed, pressed and pressed some more.
Tomas Rosicky thumped a shot just wide and the Manchester City defence creaked under the weight of the home side’s persistent, penetrating crosses into the box. Yet they held firm.
However, on the quarter-hour, Arsenal would lend the visitors a helping hand. An unmarked Van Persie met Arteta’s corner at the far post and seemed to have guided the ball into the net. However, the effort hit Thomas Vermaelen’s shoulder and ballooned over the bar.
By then Manchester City had lost Yaya Toure. The powerful midfielder had hurt himself earlier after landing awkwardly from Alex Song’s challenge. He soldiered on but eventually succumbed.
As we passed the halfway point of the first half, Manchester City were finally finding their feet. Balotelli beat Song to Samir Nasri’s low corner but Kieran Gibbs booted the ball away.
Nine minutes from the break, Nasri’s raking long pass sent Balotelli through but Wojciech Szczesny raced out to clear the danger.
However, in terms of possession, territory and attacking intent, the half had belonged to Arsenal with Rosicky and Arteta keeping the midfield engine ticking over nicely.
Meanwhile, centre backs Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany had stood out for Manchester City.
That pretty much told you everything about the nature of the opening 45 minutes.
After the restart Manchester City were different. Mancini pushed Sergio Aguero further forward and his team started to impose themselves much more. They had no choice.
Suddenly the visitors were threatening. Szczesny tipped over a looping header from Aguero, and with his first touch after replacing Gibbs, Andre Santos booted the ball clear from the onrushing Gareth Barry.
It was the turn of the Arsenal defence to creak.
But Wenger’s men would soon respond. Benayoun weaved his way through and fired straight at Hart. Then Song produced a trademark chip to the unmarked Van Persie, who guided his header against the base of the post. It was the seventh time the Dutchman had hit the woodwork this season - a tally only bettered by Luis Suarez.
Midway through the half, Laurent Koscielny was booked for a foul on Barry, meaning he will miss the games against Wolves and Wigan.
Kompany nodded the resulting free-kick into the area and Balotelli missed his attempted overhead kick from point-blank range.
Van Persie had the ball in the net soon afterwards but had been flagged for offside long before beating Hart. However, the chance gave Arsenal a little impetus – they needed it.
Fifteen minutes from time, somehow Arsenal failed to break through. Walcott slid a shot against one post, Vermaelen scuffed his chance to convert the rebound and Benayoun stumbled his effort past the other post. Incredible.
However, Arsenal now looked the only side capable of winning this game – and so it proved when Arteta stole the ball, and then the game with his second long-range strike in successive home games.
In the dying minutes, Balotelli received his second yellow card for a lunge on Sagna. Manchester City mustered a response but Arsenal had the clearest chance score again.
Deep into injury time, substitute Aaron Ramsey raced the length of the pitch, beat his marker and seemed set to curl in the second. The Welshman got it all wrong.
However, his team had done quite the opposite in a crucial day in the race for third place.
- Koscielny Yellow Card
- Gibbs 56
- Arteta Goal!
- van Persie
- Benayoun 78
- Walcott 86
- Andre Santos 56 Yellow Card
- Ramsey 78
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 86
- Zabaleta Yellow Card
- Milner Yellow Card
- Yaya Toure
- Nasri 79
- Aguero 84
- Balotelli Yellow Card Red Card
- Kolarov 79
- De Jong
- Tevez 84
- Pizarro 17