Despite the Premier League being in existence for nearly twenty years, I still haven’t fully gotten used to Sunday afternoon kick offs, especially when attending them myself. Regardless on a bright, warm autumn afternoon I boarded a train northward bound for the game of the weekend, Arsenal’s visit to Eastlands, the home of Manchester City.
My own club has always been ‘the other club’ in our city, dwarfed as we are by the appeal and glamour of a historically successful rival side, and although Manchester City have had some success in their own right, they have always been the poorer relation in comparison to the all conquering United. As such, I have always felt that Manchester City and my Birmingham City have trod very similar paths, both underachieving and under-appreciated. Supporters of both clubs tainted by a cynical edge, they always seem as though they are just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.
Having never visited the City of Manchester Stadium before I was unsure of what to expect, the ground looks impressive enough on the television but you can never get a feel for a ground until you have stood (or sat) on the terraces and my first impression was good, the view is excellent and there is a lot of legroom, which is a Godsend. However, in many ways it just doesn’t feel like a football ground. City have done their best to insert their history to their relatively new stadium, there are banners and photographs wherever you look, former players looming large over supporters milling about the concourses. Although this proud display of the club’s history is to be applauded, in many respects it does seem tacked on, if you remove the assorted City paraphernalia then Eastlands is just another concrete bowl of a stadium. Maine Road it isn’t.
Before the game there is a scheduled minutes applause for Malcolm Allison, the former City manager who passed away earlier in the month, however fans of both City and Arsenal began their applause without prompting, leading to a near three minute demonstration of respect and admiration. Although games between the two now resemble derby games in their atmosphere (thanks, in no small part to a certain Mr.Adebayor), the behaviour of both sets of supporters was exemplary and they were a credit to their clubs.
Once the action got under way the hosts were straight on the front foot, their talisman Carlos Tevez and the scampering David Silva looked troublesome, giving visiting left back Gael Clichy and his centre half Johan Djourou a torrid few opening minutes. On two minutes the City captain broke away down the Arsenal left, his low cross finding the tricky Silva, whose deft back-heel flick was just kept out by the sprawling Fabianski. City fans began roaring themselves hoarse as they smelt early blood, a minute later the Gunners’ back line creaked again as Tevez manoeuvred around Clichy, his cross intercepted by Djourou and banged away to safety.
On five minutes though the game changed, the Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas set Chamakh free on the edge of the area, only for young City defender Dedryck Boyata to scythe him down. Sadly for the 19 year old he was the last man, which left referee Mark Clattenburg little choice but to send the young Belgian off and in many ways set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
Initially though City, coped admirably with the imbalance in numbers. The flexibility of their squad seeing Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong and Jerome Boateng all dropping in and out of the defence at will, fire fighting wherever it seemed an Arsenal breakthrough was coming. However, as the half wore on the host’s midfield began to pose Arsenal problems going back the other way, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song all ended up in the referee’s notebook as they struggled to contain a vibrant City, soon it became increasingly likely that Boyata wouldn’t be the only player taking an early bath. Yet somehow a second red card never came.
Eventually though the inevitable happened, on twenty minutes, the Arsenal with their unparalleled ability on the ball compromised the City defence, a slick one-two between Nasri and Arshavin saw the Frenchman power past Barry and lash the ball past Hart and into the roof of the net. Nasri’s exclusion from the French World Cup squad looks an increasingly baffling decision as the midfielder has now notched seven goals this season and has become an integral cog in the Arsenal machine. The travelling supporters seemingly broke into rapturous, admiring song every time the Frenchman ventured anywhere near the ball and based on performances like this it is easy to see why. While the likes of Fabregas might grab the headlines, it is Nasri that drives the Gunners forward with his incisive movement and bursts of speed. Despite their ‘galactic’ squad, City desperately lack a player of Nasri’s talents, as the game moved on he made England internationals Milner and Barry look pedestrian at best.
Just before half time the game looked dead and buried, German international Boateng foolishly clattered into Fabregas inside the pentalty area and again Mr Clattenburg was left with only one choice to make. Thankfully for Manchester City, Joe Hart plunged down to his left to deny the Arsenal skipper from the spot. City supporters berated the referee at the half time whistle, as they had done throughout the first half, feeling hard done by, when in fairness City’s own exuberance had worked against them.
As the sun set began to set over Eastlands the crowd took the half time opportunity to slip away from their seats to the various bars and food outlets situated throughout the ground. I joined them, departing to use the crowded facilities with seemingly thousands of others. Supporters young and old shuffled together in relative silence, until one older City fan could take no more of his hushed, reserved conversation. He began yelling and gesticulating at his companion, chastising coach Mancini for his decision to pick the departed Boyata ahead of the more experienced Lescott. His friend, obviously accustomed to these fits of pique, calmly dismissed the man’s ravings. The collective tension soon dissipated, relieved by this loud and frankly comedic discussion. One man’s passion had tumbled out in a manner quite at odds with the safe, corporate surroundings of the new Manchester City.
As the second half began Mancini dipped, as expected, into his expensively assembled reserves. The City bench on the day was made up of countless millions of pounds worth of talent, yet the controversial Adebayor remained seated, as did promising Englishman Adam Johnson and new Italian arrival Mario Balotelli. Instead Mancini turned to left back Wayne Bridge; whose arrival was met with bemused looks and resigned shrugs from the home crowd. City’s afternoon soon got worse as skipper Tevez was forced from the field with a muscular injury, which allowed pantomime villain Adebayor to enter the fray again against his former team.
There was to be no repeat of last season however as the former Arsenal man barely had a kick. His old side took complete control in the second half, the visitors numerical advantage paid off as they barely left the City half. Although on a rare foray in Arsenal territory Adebayor headed over and David Silva brought an excellent save from Lukasz Fabianski.
On 66 minutes Arsenal finished the job, their possession and territorial domination paid off as Alex Song capitalised on a mistake in the penalty area from Vicent Kompany to fire the ball into the top corner. Arsenal’s overly exuberate celebration in front of the City fans irked the locals, leading to lighters, coins and other foreign objects being thrown from the stands.
The game, now over as a contest, saw Arsenal toy with their hosts for the remainder of the afternoon. Balotelli was finally introduced as a late substitue but could make little impact, Bendtner and Walcott came on for the visitors and on 88 minutes the former curled his first goal of the season past the despairing Hart. Nasri again pulled the strings, releasing the Dane into acres of space behind the exhausted City defence. The third goal was harsh on England’s number one but was no more than Arsenal’s second half performance deserved.
The third goal left Eastlands virtually deserted; thousands flowed towards the exits as a few hardy supporters remained, intent on one final refrain of City’s anthem ‘Blue Moon’ before escaping in to the cold, disappointed night. One fan behind me rebuked the absconding crowd ‘there is three minutes left lads, where are we going?’ He was one man pushing back against a tide.
All told, this was a fantastic result for Arsene Wenger’s side. The Gunners’ soft underbelly has often been exposed by other clubs with championship intentions so to win so comprehensively against Mancini’s expensively assembled and talented squad will be a huge fillet for the Frenchman.
For Mancini, there is still a lot of work to be done, one gets the impression that the coach still does not know what his best team is or indeed how best to array them on the pitch. The Italian’s natural defensive outlook is at loggerheads with attacking talent that he has amassed at the club, and if City are to progress then something has to give.