Thirty-eight years and 10 minutes, the time it took Manchester City to get a break at Arsenal. This was supposed to be a test of the champions' mettle. Manchester United's win over Liverpool stiffened the challenge by extending the deficit at the top to 10 points. Take that. When a rival has sprung the trap in the early game, the four o'clock slot on Super Sunday becomes a graveyard shift for teams chasing glory or survival.
Then into the life of Roberto Mancini walks Laurent Koscielny. He might have been carrying flowers. Even Arsène Wenger, a notorious misser of tricks pulled by his own, did not bother to launch a defence. There is no accounting for the risks players will take when under the cosh, but wrapping your arms around a centre-forward in the box and wrestling him to the ground must rank among the more eccentric responses from a defender under no pressure.
Even before the madness of Koscielny's red card City had a nonchalant air about their play. Gareth Barry and David Silva were immediately prominent, gathering the ball and using it resourcefully. Unlike his team, Wenger performed with great skill and candour under post-match scrutiny. There was none of the usual evasion. The difference between the teams, he acknowledged, was clear before the sending off, and it lay in the mentality of the visitors. Whatever the tension underpinning this fixture, there was little evidence of it in City's demeanour.
Given the diffidence of Arsenal, the encounter could not survive the Koscielny incident. City could afford to pass up the penalty offered. Silva is a handful under any circumstances but when invited to play at training ground pace he enters Messi territory. Another to benefit was the indefatigable James Milner, who showed the kind of variety and movement that successive England managers have believed one day he will be capable of giving consistently on the international stage. Perhaps he benefits from performing with better players around him.
The ball from Carlos Tevez was beautiful in its simplicity, a deft pass on the diagonal to set Milner free in front of goal. And what a finish. Emphatic is the word, smashed across Wojciech Szczesny into the far corner of the goal. "He is a fantastic player," Mancini said of his right-sided running machine. "He was very tired at the end. He gave everything for us, and scored a great goal."
Mancini made light of the United result. "Yes we had pressure coming here but seven, eight, nine points behind does not make a difference at this stage. We need to play well. Only this. Then we have a chance. United are really strong. They played well. It is important for us to be there."
He said City will appeal the later sending off of captain Vincent Kompany. He will be lucky. Studs up, leg outstretched, incoming player upended by the impact of the collision. Not a chance. Kompany's departure at least gave Arsenal hope. The second half was better than the first but before Kompany's ill-fated lunge the numbers were always against the home side. Wenger had to fill the hole at centre-back with Per Mertesacker, but not necessarily by removing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The increasingly ineffectual Lukas Podolski would have been a better choice, if not the returning Abou Diaby, who struggled to make any sense of the occasion. There was one screaming ray of light for Arsenal, and that was once again in the performance of Jack Wilshere.
He must have Spanish ancestry. Wilshere recycles possession with the same efficiency as Silva and turns in circles just as small. However great a problem the lack of communal self-belief is at Arsenal, it does not extend to this chap. He is therefore exempt from this criticism observed by Wenger: "We were too timid. There is not enough authority. We did not start with enough confidence and authority, and in a game like that you have to dictate your authority.
"With 10 men it is difficult, of course. It's frustrating because the team shows great heart and desire, but we are a bit too nervous in these games at home."
Arsenal travel across town to Stamford Bridge next. Maybe they will be lucky and run into Chelsea on a down day. City are in no need of any favours. They have the resource to slug this out, despite the loss of Yaya Touré to African Cup of Nations duty.
The Premier League pendulum threatens another delicious swing next weekend with the visit of United to Tottenham, one of only three teams to beat them this season in the league and the only one to do so at Old Trafford. At least City get to go first this time, hosting Fulham, a fixture that for 24 hours at least could see the deficit in the title battle reduced to four points.Reuse content