What a day of football it was in the Barclays Premier League, a day which in all likelihood has decided where in Manchester the title will be heading this season.
In the early kick off United had opened up an 8 point lead over neighbours City after beating QPR 2-0 at Old Trafford. The game was not without controversy, adding fuel to the argument that the bigger clubs get more of the questionable decisions in their favour. Ashley Young was already in an offside position when he went down under the slightest touch from Shaun Derry. A penalty was given and a straight red card was given to Derry. A hat-trick of misery that Rangers didn’t deserve. Rooney duly converted and from then on it was just a matter of time until United finished the game off.
Before the United result came in, City knew that realistically they had to win at the Emirates to have any chance of catching United so it shouldn’t have affected their game plan. Win here, and beat United at home and they were back in with a chance. A chance that was never to come.
In the first 30 minutes, Arsenal were superb and you could see the confidence oozing from the players on the back of their recent impressive run of form. They look like a side again who could challenge for the title, if only the season had started a few months later.
City were lucky not to be a goal down after 17 minutes, when a header from Robin Van Persie was inadvertently cleared by Thomas Vermaelen underneath the cross bar with Joe Hart beaten. City were finding it hard to get hold of the ball, which was compounded by the loss of Yaya Toure early on due to injury.
City were then lucky to keep eleven players on the pitch when the enigmatic Mario Balotelli went in with a studs up challenge on the superb Alex Song. He was lucky to escape with just a warning, as the replays showed that it warranted a straight red card. Balotelli was then booked just before half time for as late challenge on Bacary Sagna.
After the break, City did come out with more urgency but still had no real threat in the final third. They suffered another lucky escape after 62 minutes when Van Persie headed against the post when unmarked from just a few yards out.
Arsenal were taking control of the game again and should have been ahead when Theo Walcott’s shot was tipped onto the post, the ball came out to Vermaelen and then Yossi Benayoun who both somehow couldn’t score from virtually the City goal line.
However, the Gunners finally did get the breakthrough that they deserved on 87 minutes, after Mikel Arteta won a battle for posession with Pizarro before hitting the ball low and powerfully to the left of Joe Hart who was unsighted.
There appeared to be little time for a fightback, but there was still time for Balotelli to make thew headlines with a reckless challenge again on Bacary Sagna. There was no avoiding the second yellow card that followed, and City were down to 10 men for the final few minutes.
Balotelli’s actions may have been a bridge too far for his manager, and his City future could now be in jeopardy. Mancini said “He is not a bad guy and a fantastic player but I’m very sorry for him as he continues to lose his talent and his quality. I don’t have any words for his behaviour. I hope for him he can understand he is in a bad way for his future and I really hope that he can change his behaviour in the future. He will probably not play in the next six games. I need to be sure I always have 11 players on the pitch and with Mario this is a big risk.”
After the game, Mancini also refused to concede that the title race is over, “No, it’s not mathematically (over), but it’s clear now that it’s very difficult,” he added. “We have a game in three days and we will try to win. Never say never in football.
Over at United, Sir Alex could be forgiven for raising a wry smile as only a catastrophic collapse would now see them surrender their 8 point lead. Having only lost 3 games in 32, you certainly cannot see them losing 3 more in just 6 games. Sir Alex and his team truly are the masters of squeaky bum time, but they know that City will come back stronger next season and they will have to rise to the challenge again.
And with Sir Alex at the helm, who would bet against them?