They switched off the floodlights, projected the image of a blue moon across the East Stand and decked all the fans out with flags before kick-off last night. No pressure, gentlemen, but after 28 years without a cup semi-final of any description, east Manchester was expecting some theatre.
Whatever the controversies and sub-plots of the night, City delivered, with Carlos Tevez, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Craig Bellamy dazzling in the extreme. Their goals, taken with a first for the club by Vladimir Weiss, one of the young breed who some had feared might be elbowed out by the City juggernaut, will live in City lore for many a long year.
Don't let anything Arsène Wenger might say take anything from this. The match-up of the sides is a necessary part of the perspective this morning – just two of Manchester City's substitutes weighed at a value of £38m while Alex Song was Arsenal's only survivor from September's 4-2 league win – but it was not quite the meeting of unequal forces which Wenger posited in his ungracious conclusions. Arsenal's side, average age 23, was seasoned enough and City were lumbered with a knowledge of what were the awful, symbolic consequences of defeat. The unpalatable truth for Wenger is that his Carling Cup team, just like his Premier League side, is fragile enough for a side of attacking force like Hughes' to blow them away.
Everyone was ready with the ammunition, from the projection room man to the City's fans, with chants on hand for an Arsenal contingent intent on howling down Emmanuel Adebayor for his 100m sprint to celebrate his last goal against them. "Adebayor, Adebayor, runs 100 metres in 10.4," they sang.
What followed was the most complete half of football that this tournament will offer all season: City, striving to lift themselves from the torpor of the seven league draws, probing every inch available to them with Wright-Phillips' resurrection from recent weeks making the night a truly wretched one for Armand Traoré. The game was three minutes old when the right-winger skinned him, crossed low and Mikaël Silvestre hacked clear.
City's intent was written in the nature of their goals. Tevez had been slightly eclipsed when the 50th minute ticked up and he robbed Tomas Rosicky, who was fiddling with a ball on the right touchline, exchanged passes with Bellamy and ran on, past Emmanuel Eboué, inside Song and before Silvestre could place a challenge, had unleashed a shot of unstoppable force with thumped the underside of the cross bar and fell over the line.
The question posed almost immediately was whether City would surrender another lead. Aaron Ramsey should have punished them when Carlos Vela lofted a ball up to him but he headed over. But this was a night of redemption for Joleon Lescott, in particular. The faintest touch of his boot saved three dicey first-half situations as Ramsey and Jack Wilshere were given more encouragement in front of the back four than might have been the case had Nigel de Jong been deployed.
Then Wright-Phillips' own signature goal: Rosicky again the man dispossessed, by Stephen Ireland, who sent the Englishman on a slalom run of his own beyond Silvestre. A delicate feint later the ball was hitting the top right-hand corner of the net. Bellamy had just forced a point blank save when he bisected Song and Wilshere, ran a ball between Silvestre's legs and found Weiss who fired his first City goal in off the upright in the last minute.
Hughes blew out his cheeks. It was a victory of some symbolism which, more significantly than perhaps the most anticipated Carling Cup semi-final of all time, will buy him time to build. Now for Chelsea, Bolton, Tottenham and Sunderland – tough, sides that City have found less accommodating. Can they draw strength from one night of theatre?
Manchester City (4-4-2): Given; Richards, Touré, Lescott, Bridge; Ireland, Barry, Wright-Phillips (Weiss, 77), Tevez (Kompany 74); Bellamy, Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Onuoha, Johnson, Robinho, Taylor (gk), Santa Cruz.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Fabianski; Eboué, Silvestre, Song, Traoré; Eastmond (Watt 68); Wilshere, Rosicky, Ramsay, Merida; Vela. Substitutes not used: Mannone (gk), Bartley, Coquelin, Frimpong, Gilbert, Randall.
Referee: C Foy (Merseyside).
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