What was on paper a daunting fixture - with the weight of history against the Blues - turned into a largely stress free encounter for the 2000 or so fans who made the expensive journey down to North London.
Whilst the squad is by no means threadbare, the absences of Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri meant that Mancini’s options for the starting XI were certainly more limited than they had been in previous games. Javi Garcia partnered the in-form Barry in defensive midfield and Nastasic was restored to the side ahead of Lescott who had been preferred for the previous two fixtures against Stoke and Watford. Other than Hart’s return in goal it was very much a case of as you were as City looked to build on their good recent run. With league leaders United doing enough to secure three points against Liverpool earlier in the day, it was imperative that City started well here as they sought to reduce the gap at the top from 10 points. City were very much on the front foot by the time proceedings took a dramatic twist. As Dzeko span to try and make contact on Barry’s looping header, he was clearly impeded by Koscielny with a challenge that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Twickenham. So early in the game it was a bold decision from Dean to issue a red card to the ailing Frenchman. However Dzeko’s poorly struck spot kick was saved by Szczesny’s leg aided by the frame of the goal.
Brushing aside the frustration of that miss, City were able to relax as they probed the Arsenal backline. When Garcia was caught by Lucas Podolski, quick thinking from Silva and then Tevez enabled Milner to find space in the right hand channel of the Arsenal area and smash his shot across Szczesny and in off the far post. The killer goal arrived not long afterwards, when Zabaleta was far too strong for Kieron Gibbs, winning possession high up the field and again finding Milner in space. His cross was diverted towards goal by Carlos Tevez and Dzeko was on hand, as he so often is, to tap the ball home from a few yards out. Credit again to the officials for recognising that City’s leading scorer was level with play as the ball fizzed across goal.
Arsenal battled in vain throughout the second period, closing City down well and ensuring that this did not turn into a rout for the Champions. That said, Carlos Tevez should have finished when set clear and there were other opportunities to kill the game with a third goal, all spurned much to Mancini’s frustration on the touchline. That feeling was only exacerbated when Kompany was to become the 2nd player to be ejected from the field of play prematurely. Going to ground to dispossess Jack Wilshire, the City captain was adjudged to have lunged in two footed and was summarily dismissed. The challenge whilst robust cleanly won the ball and echoed the dismissal against Manchester United in the FA Cup last year. City will undoubtedly appeal but it is hard to predict whether the card will be rescinded. With Kolo Toure away at the African Cup of Nations, there may well be a temptation to move in the transfer market should the club lose their captain for 3 (and possibly 4 if the appeal be deemed frivolous) matches in January.
The Sky Sports coverage credited Edin Dzeko with the Man of the Match award and it was certainly encouraging to see the Bosnian on the scoresheet again and linking up well with Tevez – something which has not always been the case. However, James Milner was arguably City’s strongest performer, combining application and work rate with clever incisive movement and an end product. The absence of Nasri has yet to be felt with Milner in this form. Special mention also to Javi Garcia – admittedly up against a rusty opponent in Abu Diaby – but who was nevertheless strong in the challenge and pleasingly economical in possession. As he faces plenty of game time in the coming weeks, it is promising to note that he finally appears to have acclimatised to the suffocating pace of the Premier League.
And so the pursuit continues. A bullish Mancini post game said he would be happy if City were to head towards April 4 or 5 points in deficit to their neighbours. A difficult hurdle has been cleared here and Saturday’s home fixture with Fulham should offer City the chance to reduce the gap to 4 points ahead of Spurs and United clashing at White Hart Lane. Blues will be hoping it will be the 2nd ‘Super Sunday’ in succession for all the right reasons.
Man of the Match: James Milner