Nasri haunts Arsenal as Blue Moon rises to top
Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0
The story that circulated on Saturday night about Mario Balotelli driving around Manchester in a blue Santa Claus suit handing out money would appear, alas, to be apocryphal after all. But there is another happy Christmas tale brewing in Manchester and it is every bit as joyful for the blue half of the city.
Yesterday was a return to form for City after their first league defeat of the season against Chelsea a week earlier and it was a victory that took them back to the top of the Premier League after Manchester United's brief ascent during the afternoon. Should City beat Stoke City on Wednesday then they will guarantee being leaders of the top-flight on Christmas Day for the first time in their history since 1929.
It was David Silva who scored the winning goal yesterday but it was Samir Nasri who was the game's most influential player, a reality that was painful for the Arsenal fans who came to barrack him. Arsene Wenger's side did not even play poorly, especially given their adhoc defence, it was just that to beat City at the Etihad these days you will have to be exceptional.
Wenger's team are now five points behind third-placed Tottenham Hotspur who have played one game fewer than their north London rivals. This is undoubtedly an improvement on the early season chaos at the Emirates but this defeat will have shown Wenger that he is still significantly behind the team setting the pace in the division.
The Arsenal manager admitted after the game that winning the title must surely be beyond his team now that they lag 12 points behind City. He did the same after his team lost to Spurs in October. Conceding the title once before Christmas is bad enough, conceding it twice is demoralising although it probably says something about Arsenal's recent resurgence that they were considered remotely back in contention.
Wenger said that Arsenal should have had a penalty for what he regarded as a handball by Micah Richards on 78 minutes but really City deserved to win this game. They started in a thunderous fashion. It was a much as Arsenal could do to hang on for that first 15 minutes and a couple of months ago they might not have been so successful at doing so but this Arsenal side is not so brittle.
In the end it was in defence that Wenger's team was undone after the break. They lost Johan Djourou to a groin injury that could rule him out for three weeks and had to re-shuffle their defence again, without any designated full-backs to choose from. In the confusion that followed they conceded the goal that decided the game.
In those opening exchanges Nasri was excellent, as he was for much of the game before his substitution in the closing stages. The abuse from Arsenal fans he will be used to by now, it would have been the words of criticism from his manager that stung the most this week. Roberto Mancini had only said that he thought Nasri could have done better but they were words clearly designed to have an effect.
In the ninth minute, Sergio Aguero should have scored when Gareth Barry slipped the ball into the left channel for Pablo Zabaleta to cross. There was enough time for Aguero to take a touch in the area but he was not settled enough to keep his shot on target.
These were anxious times for Arsenal and that was before the away support had figured out a response to the chant from the City fans of "Van Persie is ours, you're just our feeder club, Van Persie is ours."
Alex Song was booked for a foolish tackle on Silva, coming in from behind the player, and he might have considered himself fortunate not to be dismissed for another within minutes. Later, his clumsy challenge on Balotelli might have resulted in worse but Phil Dowd let it go. Song was limping badly afterwards and is suspended for Wednesday's game against Aston Villa.
As City came at the visitors, Per Mertesacker did well initially to get a foot to the ball as Nasri cut in from the right but generally the Arsenal centre-half struggled. Later on he failed to head away a cross and Balotelli pulled the ball down neatly in the area. It required an excellent save from Wojciech Szczesny to save Arsenal.
As a compensation for Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny was impressive. He made one great tackle on Balotelli and he started the move that almost saw Aaron Ramsey run in on goal on 35 minutes. That was stopped by Kolo Toure's saving challenge. Having survived the early onslaught, Arsenal came back into the game later in the first half. Joe Hart saved well from Gervinho after Song's through ball had found him.
The undoing of Arsenal started with Djourou's injury that meant he had to come off within two minutes of the start of the second half. Arsenal already had centre-backs in their two full-back positions and the introduction at left-back of Ignasi Miquel, who looked anxious from the word go, did not change that.
They changed so that Thomas Vermaelen switched from left-back into the centre and Miquel took his original position while Koscielny went out to right-back. It was the latter part of that plan that failed ten minutes later when Balotelli was allowed to run unchecked down the City left wing. He cut in past Song and hit a shot that Szczesny saved. Vermaelen could not get the rebound away far enough and Silva was there to finish.
City might have buried them in the moments that ensued. Nasri, playing with real confidence, exchanged passes with Silva and crossed tantalisingly across goal where Balotelli would have scored had he reacted quicker. Later Pablo Zabaleta intercepted a sloppy pass and hit a shot that bounced back off Szczesny's left post.
As for Arsenal, Theo Walcott came off after 69 uninspiring minutes waving his arms about and arguing with Pat Rice, Wenger's assistant. It was not immediately clear what his complaint was given how poorly he had played. Van Persie had a shot from Gervinho's cut-back well saved by Hart.
In fact, Hart was impressive in those closing stages. None more so than when he tipped a shot from Vermaelen over the bar in injury-time. Such are the moments that successful title seasons are built on and, after Stamford Bridge last weekend, City are back on track.
Substitutes: Man City Milner 5 (Balotelli, 72), Y Touré (De Jong, 85), Dzeko (Nasri, 85). Arsenal Miquel 5 (Djourou, 47), Arshavin (Walcott, 69), Chamakh (Mertesacker, 82).
Booked: Man City Barry, Aguero. Arsenal Koscielny, Arteta, Song.
Man of the match Nasri. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Man City 52% Arsenal 48%.
Attempts on target: Man City 9 Arsenal 8.
Referee P Dowd (Staffordshire).
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