Even David Seaman cannot remember the last time Arsenal began the league season with four straight wins. The venerable goalkeeper left the City of Manchester stadium yesterday wishing he could forget how they have done so this season.
Seaman, who is 40 this month, left Arsenal for Manchester City in the summer determined to prove he could still perform at the highest level. His first reunion with his former team-mates suggested his shot-stopping reflexes remain sharp but his command of the penalty box is fatally diminished.
With City seeking to preserve a lead given them by a freakish own goal by Lauren after 10 minutes, Seaman arched like a teenage gymnast to tip over Frederik Ljungberg's 39th-minute shot. However, after Arsenal had levelled through Sylvain Wiltord shortly after the break, a 72nd-minute chip from Wiltord found Seaman wanting. With Sun Jihai holding off Robert Pires, the ball was the goalkeeper's to claim. Seaman, though, could only stumble forward, knocking the ball up with his knee. It fell to Ljungberg, who gleefully rolled the ball home as the keeper grabbed despairingly at his ankles.
Victory, combined with Manchester United's defeat at Southampton earlier in the day, left Arsenal three points clear at the top of the Premiership. It is the first time since 1947-48, when they went on to lift the title, that they have won their opening four league matches.
The manner in which the Gunners surrendered the championship last season was, said Arsène Wenger, motivating his team this term. That may be true but yesterday they needed additional encouragement.
So poor were Arsenal during the opening 45 minutes that Wenger, improbably, has become the first manager to blister the walls of the newly painted away dressing-room. In his previous seven years at the helm Wenger, famously, had only lost his temper once, during the 6-1 drubbing across this city at Old Trafford three seasons ago. Yesterday 'Le Professeur' again raised his voice.
"He asked us if we really wanted to go and win it this year," Martin Keown said. "He told us this is where it starts." Wenger admitted: "We lost too many fights in the first half. We played within ourselves. We were not sharp and not supporting our forwards."
Perhaps an unscheduled 4am sojourn in the car park of their Manchester hotel, following a fire alarm, was the reason. More likely it was overconfidence following last season's 5-1 win having been 4-0 up inside 20 minutes.
Such has been the pace of change at City that there were only three survivors from that débâcle wearing sky blue, though the way Theirry Henry was gifted the ball after 30 seconds suggested it was a case of plus ça change. With Henry restricted to winning a corner from that first break, City settled. They went on to dominate the half through a combination of prodigious toil and intelligent ball movement.
The transfer deadline signings of Claudio Reyna and Steve McManaman had put the City midfield in general, and Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joey Barton in particular, under threat. The pair responded with commitment. Wright-Phillips gave Ashley Cole a torrid first half and Barton matched Patrick Vieira tackle for tackle. This pressure on the ball, which was copied throughout the team, led directly to City's goal. Vieira, over-hitting a throw-in back to Cole, had needlessly conceded possession. David Sommeil then floated a long ball behind Lauren down City's left flank. With Trevor Sinclair in close pursuit, Lauren took a poor first touch and then, off balance by a timely shove from Sinclair, stabbed the ball past Jens Lehmann and inside the far post with his left shin.
Anelka twice and Antoine Sibierski might both have extended City's lead as the blue side of Manchester envisaged themselves top of this morning's Premiership table. But while you can take City out of Maine Road it seems you cannot change their nature and, three minutes into the second half, sloppy defending from Wright-Phillips, Sommeil and Sylvain Distin allowed Cole to deliver a low cross which the unmarked Wiltord tapped in.
Though Anelka and Sibierski had further chances, the game had been transformed. Arsenal's winner was not a surprise nor, given Seaman's reluctance to leave the six-yard box these days, the manner of it.
"It was an opportunity lost," Kevin Keegan said, "but we were not good enough." Like Wenger he steered clear of blaming Seaman, only noting the ball should have been cleared before it required the goalkeeper's intervention.
At the finish Seaman was warmly embraced by his former comrades. They could afford to be generous, especially Lauren.
Goals: Lauren og (10) 1-0; Wiltord (48) 1-1; Ljungberg, (72) 1-2.
Manchester City (4-4-2): Seaman 5; Sun Jihai 5, Sommeil 5, Distin 5, Tarnat 4; Wright-Phillips 5 (Berkovic, 78), Bosvelt 5 (Fowler, 78), Barton 7, Sinclair 6; Anelka 6, Sibierski 5 (Tiatto 3, 67). Substitutes not used: Weaver (gk), Dunne.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann 5; Lauren 4, Touré 7, Keown 6, Cole 6; Ljungberg 5 (Parlour, 76), Gilberto 4, Vieira 5, Pires 4 (Edu, 83); Wiltord 6 (Bergkamp, 76), Henry 5. Substitutes not used: Cygan, Taylor (gk).
Referee: G Poll (Tring) 6.
Booked: Manchester City: Barton, Sommeil, Tarnat, Tiatto. Arsenal: Cole, Lauren.
Man of the match: Touré.
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