Yesterday I wondered if United going 8 points clear after winning at QPR would increase City’s resolve and fight, or simply add more pressure under which they would buckle. I think it’s fair to say it was the latter but more than anything else it was a fine Arsenal performance from which we more than merited the three points.
The first half revolved around two incidents. Firstly, a van Persie header from a corner which was going in but hit Vermaelen on the way and deflected onto the bar and over. It produced this incredible photograph in which you can see the horror dawning across Vermaelen’s face as he realises what’s happened.
Then there was Mario Balotelli. He should have been sent off in the 20th minute for a disgraceful assault – and there is no better word for it – on Alex Song. He overran the ball then, quite deliberately, went over the top, studs up onto Song’s knee. The leg buckled for a moment but thankfully was not planted firmly on the ground. If it had been we’d have been looking at another Ramsey, another Eduardo, another Diaby.
Obviously the referee didn’t see it. Whatever you think of Martin Atkinson, if he’d seen that he would have had no choice but to send the Italian off. It’s hard to imagine that his assistant, on that side of the pitch, missed it too, but Balotelli got away with it at the time. I do hope that it’s an incident that is reviewed and acted upon accordingly. Regardless of the red card he got later in the game this has to be acted upon.
And without wanting to go too far down this road yet again, the continued, stubborn reluctance of English football to deal properly with disgusting challenges like this is a reason why we see so many of then in the Premier League. Other leagues dish out far more appropriate punishments – witness an 8 game ban in the Bundesliga recently for this – so why are the FA so opposed to ridding the game of violence which could irreparably damage a player’s career?
Balotelli eventually picked up a booking late in the half for this third studs up challenge of the day, having already kicked the ball away, and then being penalised for a deliberate handball which the referee saw quite clearly. That he remained on the pitch in the second half was amazing to me but I’m glad he did.
Apart from one half-chance, which he miskicked, and a bit of City pressure in the early stages of the second half, they looked a fractured unit. Arsenal always looked like the better team and the one most likely to score. There were chances. Robin van Persie hit the post with a header after a deft pass from Song and then had a goal rightly disallowed for offside (although this past weekend has seen the offside rule deemed irrelevant by some officials).
Bacary Sagna fed Theo Walcott whose shot was pushed onto the post by Joe Hart. From the rebound Vermaelen slipped as he hit it from three yards out, it fell to Yossi Benayoun, who was about 3 feet out, but somehow he miskicked it and the ball hit the far side of the post and went out. I know many will focus on Ramsey’s late miss but I’m still baffled as to how Benayoun failed to score from there.
In the end the goal was late, and great, and reminded me a bit of Sagna’s against Sp*rs. Mikel Arteta looked around and thought ‘Right, if nobody else is going to do it, I will’. He robbed Pizarro in midfield, drove on for a couple of steps, then unleashed a rocket of a shot into the bottom corner, giving Hart no chance. The goal was no less than we deserved and City were well and truly broken.
There was still time for Balotelli to get the red card his performance deserved and some late danger from a City free kick which turned into an Arsenal break. Ramsey was clean through, with van Persie and Oxlade-Chamberlain open for a pass, but shot high and wide from 7 yards. I’ve got no issue at all with him shooting from there, I think we all would, but as finishes go it was as bad as it gets.
I think he’s a player aware of what a goal would do for him and was trying a bit too hard, but there’s no point dwelling on that when overall it was a fantastic win for us and another really excellent team performance. Afterwards, Arsene said:
I always felt the goal would come but it was very tight and in the end you feel it is important not to lose. But we kept going and at home recently we have produced some outstanding performances against any team. I am very happy that we got the win and the team continues to grow in quality.
The only downside is the fact that Laurent Koscielny picked up a booking which, because he now has 10 for the season, means he’s got a 2 game ban. But with all due respect to our next opponents, perhaps Wolves and Wigan aren’t the worst games to miss him for and after playing almost every game this season he’ll be back fresh what’s sure to be a huge game against Chelsea.
Overall, it was a win based on a really solid performance and the lessons of QPR seem to have been learned. Early in the first half, during one of City’s rare forays forward, Mikel Arteta chased back with $amir Na$ri and won two headers on the edge of our box before we got the ball under control again. It was that kind of work ethic which provided the foundation for the performance and result.
Alex Song had a very fine game as Arsenal dominated City’s midfield, and although he might go unsung today I thought Rosicky was outstanding. He buzzed around all day long, even in the 93rd minute he was pressing City’s defenders high up the pitch, and to have that kind of energy in the team is so important.
Defensively we were sound. Wojciech Szczesny swept up well, the two centre-halves were more or less untroubled, Sagna was his usual consistent self down the right hand side, and even though Andre Santos seemed to play more as a support striker when he came on, City couldn’t exploit the space when they got the ball.
So, back into third, 2 clear of Sp*rs and 5 of Chelsea. The players can be rightly proud of what they did yesterday, and take all the confidence they need from it, but they have to refocus immediately on what’s going to be a difficult midweek trip to Wolves.
Today, being a bank holiday, we can relax and enjoy the fact we’ve stepped up and reacted to the QPR defeat, and pretty much made sure that Na$ri remains a medal free zone this season too. It’s almost like he’s got something to do with it, weird eh?