By Nik Brumsack at Etihad Stadium
Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud were on target as Arsenal picked up a thoroughly impressive and richly-deserved three points at Manchester City on Sunday afternoon.
Arsene Wenger’s side took the lead midway through the first half when Cazorla converted from the spot after Vincent Kompany had felled Nacho Monreal.
Having dealt with a wave of pressure after the break, the Gunners made the game safe after 67 minutes. This time Cazorla turned provider, sending over a perfect pinpoint free-kick for Giroud to nod beyond Joe Hart.
Having showcased the fluid and attacking side to their game in recent matches, this was an altogether more rugged performance - and one which will have pleased Wenger and the Arsenal fans immensely.
The team were committed and resilient against the Premier League champions, efficient when in possession and disciplined when not on the ball.
The Gunners have been criticised of late for their failure to win big games away from home. They answered those emphatically here, with a first victory at Etihad Stadium since October 2010. With Southampton, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur all collecting three points on Saturday, this was a vital result for Wenger's men.
As things stand, Arsenal are just one point off the top four - and this result will surely give them an injection of momentum in the coming weeks.
SETTING THE SCENE
Arsenal had produced arguably their most complete performance of the season in last Sunday’s 3-0 win over Stoke City, an exciting attacking display in which the Gunners’ movement, flair and fluidity proved too much to contain.
The one negative during that victory was the dislocated shoulder suffered by Mathieu Debuchy. Hector Bellerin, who replaced the Frenchman last weekend, filled the vacant right-back slot. Meanwhile Aaron Ramsey replaced Tomas Rosicky in central midfield.
As was the case last weekend, Wenger picked a strong substitutes’ bench, with Rosicky, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott among the options at Wenger’s disposal.
City have been in ominous form of late - winning nine and drawing three of their last 12 league games. Manuel Pellegrini was named as December’s Premier League Manager of the Month before the game, but had to do without Yaya Toure and new signing Wilfried Bony - the duo representing Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero were deemed fit enough to start, while former Gunner Gael Clichy lined up at left back, with Bacary Sagna on the bench.
Arsenal came into this game without an away win against any of the current top four in 12 games - a 5-3 success at Chelsea in October 2011. There was, however, cause for optimism. Wenger’s side had comprehensively beaten City in this season’s Community Shield and were unlucky not to win when the teams drew 2-2 at Emirates Stadium in September.
The boss had stated the need for his team to find the right balance between attack and defence during his pre-match press conference. They started the game in a mature fashion, closing City players down whenever the hosts approached the final third.
Having soaked up the early pressure, Arsenal created the first real chance after 18 minutes. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made it, skipping down the right before crossing for Giroud, whose near-post header flashed wide.
The Gunners were growing into the game and were given the perfect opportunity to take the lead midway through the first half.
Monreal picked up possession on the edge of the City area and looked up. Having played the ball into Giroud’s feet, the full back was prevented from reaching the return pass due to Kompany’s bodycheck.
Mike Dean pointed to the spot and Cazorla did the rest, opening his body up to confidently convert the resulting penalty.
The goal seemed to give Arsenal a shot of momentum. They continued to defend stoutly as a team, giving the hosts’ more attacking players no time or space in dangerous areas.
In fact, David Ospina was not called upon at all in the opening 45 minutes as Arsenal took a well-deserved lead into the break.
Pellegrini shuffled his pack at half-time, introducing Stevan Jovetic for James Milner. Immediately the game became more stretched, with Aguero’s curled shot deflecting just off target and Ospina having to beat away Jesus Navas’ powerful effort.
City continued to threaten but Arsenal repelled all the hosts had to offer with no shortage of tenacity and spirit - embodied by a series of brave blocks inside the penalty area.
As the hosts poured men forward, Arsenal became more of a threat on the break. They created a fine opportunity to double the lead 10 minutes after the break. Cazorla, Alexis and Giroud combined well to create an opportunity for Ramsey, whose left-footed effort from the edge of the box flew harmlessly over Hart’s crossbar.
Back came City. Silva - offering more of a threat after the break - slipped Navas away down the right. The winger’s low cross looked destined to be tapped home by Aguero but Laurent Koscielny stuck out a boot to divert the ball wide.
Arsenal had defended with concentration, organisation and spirit. Midway through the half, they added the second goal that their committed display had merited.
Cazorla - enjoying another exceptional afternoon in midfield - was heavily involved, whipping in a free-kick which Giroud met totally unmarked to head beyond Hart from eight yards.
Alexis nearly added a third soon after, but, after cutting inside from the left, saw his curling 20-yard shot palmed away by Hart.
City threw on Edin Dzeko but were becoming ever more desperate in their attempts to get back into the game - with Jovetic’s low shot failing to trouble Ospina.
In fact, it was Arsenal who had the best chance in the closing stages. Mathieu Flamini bustled his way to the byline but couldn't feed Giroud, who would have had a tap in.
A third goal would have added gloss to the scoreline, but Arsenal had done more than enough. What a win – and what a performance.
Referee: Mike Dean
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