Sunday, April 8, 2012

Arsenal 1 - Manchester City 0

This was a big game for both sides. With Man U winning earlier in the day, Man City needed the win to keep pace with the Premier League leaders. And Arsenal, of course, were looking to regain the momentum they had squandered at QPR last week, where their seven-game winning streak ended in a game they really should have won.

In the early going, Arsenal looked much the better side. But Man City were lucky on three occasions. First, they were lucky that referee Martin Atkinson did not award a penalty after van Persie was sandwiched  by two defenders in the area. Second, they were lucky when Vermaelen accidentally got in the way of van Persie's well-placed header and deflected it against the crossbar. Third, they were lucky when Atkinson incomprehensibly allowed the certifiable Mario Ballotelli to remain on the pitch after a very late studs-to-the-knee challenge on Alex Song. It was a red-card offense 10 out of 10 times. Balotelli did finally receive a yellow card in the 38th minute after his third studs-up challenge of the half. At the end of the half, he was writhing on the pitch in apparent back pain. Not even his own teammates seemed particularly interested in his well-being.

After the first 15-20 minutes of the first half, City eventually found their legs, and the game settled into an uneasy equilibrium with each side occasionally challenging the other's final third but neither creating real scoring threats. Having failed to score during their period of early domination, Arsenal seemed to lose their attacking edge for a while. But as halftime approached, the game opened up a bit again with both sides attacking more fervently but also squandering possession to the other, creating opportunities for counterattacks. If anything, Arsenal remained slightly dominant, but both sides were playing as if they understood that the first goal would be huge, perhaps decisive.

Man City started the second half on the front foot, creating their first real chance of the game in the 54th minute, when Kun Aguero got a header on goal that Szczesny had to tip over the bar. They managed to sustain the same kind of offensive pressure that Arsenal enjoyed in the early stages of the first half. When  Arsenal finally got some possession, they nearly scored. First, Yossi Benayoun made a strong run with the ball into the box after a City turnover, but couldn't get much power behind his shot, which Joe Hart saved easily. Then, a Theo Walcott cross found van Persie open the six yard box, but his header deflected out from the far post.

By the middle of the second half, Arsenal were once against enjoying the lion's share of possession, and consistently threatening at City's end of the pitch. But they just couldn't find the decisive pass or shot in the final third. As the game wore on, the Citizens looked to tire, and Arsenal piled on the pressure. If either team was going score, the Gunners appeared far more likely to be that team.

And it should have happened in the 76th minute, when it seemed easier for the Gunners to score than not. At least three Arsenal players had the opportunity to put the ball in the net, but all they could manage was to hit the woodwork again and screw the ball just wide of the goal. Man City looked to be holding on for dear life, and Arsenal kept tightening the screws. It seemed only a matter of time before Arsenal would take a well-deserved lead.

Finally, it came in the 87th minute. Mike Arteta stepped in front of a Man City midfielder to steal a pass. No one stood in his path as he ran forward with the ball and drove a strong shot from nearly 30 yards out that beat Joe Hart at the near post. Arsenal 1 - Man City 0. Shortly after that, Man City were down to 10 men after justice was finally served, when the reckless Mario Balotelli picked up his second yellow card of the match for his fourth studs-up challenge of the match.

With victory secured after 4 minutes of extra time, Arsenal could look back with satisfaction on a very well earned victory. Virtually every Gunner on the pitch played well in a match that Arsenal truly deserved to win. It was one of the biggest victories of the season, especially given the stakes and the quality of the opponent. It may have been a pivotal moment of Arsenal's campaign to secure a place in the Champion's League for next season.

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