With Brian Clough you often got more heat than light, but when it came to the torn feelings of the average football fan towards the champions, he was hard to fault. "Brilliant," he said, before the barb was exposed. "It sticks in the craw a little bit, because nobody likes Arsenal."
Or rather nobody liked them. It is hard to feel negative about a side who play club football in such an exciting manner and "Boring, boring Arsenal" is about as relevant now as the "We hate Nottingham Forest" chants that were reprised during Clough's glory days at the City Ground. The current Forest are too peripheral to despise; the Gunners, at their silky best, too thrilling.
Manchester City tried to halt the purring Rolls-Royce yesterday and at least had Arsenal's engine straining at times but not so much that they could grab a reward from Arsenal, who now have a near-perfect 19 points from seven games. The blue moon did not rise over Eastlands last night and the clock on the undefeated League record has reached 47.
City laboured prodigiously but they were unable to give their potential match-winner, Shaun Wright-Phillips, enough of the ball. Arsène Wenger had expressed his admiration for the City winger on Friday - "Could he be an Arsenal player? It is not impossible, but I don't know yet" - but the Gunners manager's attention was drawn from the England winger he clearly covets to the man marking him: Ashley Cole.
The Arsenal left-back not only did a good job in suppressing Wright-Phillips, but he was a constant thorn in City's right flank, scoring the goal that kept his side top of the Premiership and hitting a post. It is not every day Thierry Henry is eclipsed on the left, but he was yesterday.
"I'm not surprised Ashley was there," Wenger said, "but the way he took the goal was surprising. He was like a striker, he kept a cool head." On the result, he added: "Ideally we want to win 3-0, but I have to be a realist. I can go along with the fact the team can win 1-0."
Kevin Keegan was also in a generous mood, describing Arsenal as the best team he had ever met as a Premiership manager. "We put a lot of sweat on the shirts and played with a big heart, but we were still beaten by an excellent side," he said. "They are great with a capital G."
The champions lurched into the North-west reeling from their worst result of the season, a draw against Bolton, but it was soon apparent they were thoroughbreds among mongrels. To be fair to City, they had the excellent Jens Lehmann scurrying to save from Jon Macken after four minutes and would have taken the lead three minutes later if Nicolas Anelka's volley had found the top corner instead of flying just wide.
Amid these isolated home breaks, however, Arsenal were so smooth that their play could have been set to music and the only surprise about their 14th-minute goal was that a City player managed to play a part in it. Jose Antonio Reyes cut in from the left à la the injured Robert Pires and his pass was heading for Henry's run until Richard Dunne stuck out a boot. It was to no avail, though, because Cole, with the deadliness of a seasoned striker, darted in to take the rebound, slid past a potential challenge and then flicked the ball past David James with the outside of his foot.
Cole almost repeated the trick minutes later but the bounce eluded him as he burst into the area and it was Henry who came closest to extending Arsenal's lead in the first half, pushing just wide from a narrow angle on the left after 28 minutes and then shooting at James from the right a minute before the interval.
Arsenal almost stretched their lead after 50 minutes when Henry galloped down the left and drilled a low pass across the six-yard box. James's fingertips just diverted the ball away from Freddie Ljungberg and when the Swede turned, Sun Jihai was there to clear off the line.
Cole, who was proving Arsenal's most potent force in attack, came even closer 15 minutes later when his charge down the left culminated with a shot against the post and as their goal lived a charmed life, City could sense their reward was within touching distance.
Anelka, against his former club, was in one of his more dynamic moods and spearheaded a rally that could have brought an equaliser. Balls were fired at Lehmann, who dealt admirably with a series of high crosses, but the nearest City came to ruining the champions' day came when the French striker emerged just ahead of Sol Campbell to get a touch on Macken's pass from the right. A touch was all it was, however, and Lehmann saved to his right.
Like so many others in a remarkable run, the goal City needed would not come. One-nil, as they say in north London, to the Arsenal.
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