Safe Arsenal punish stale Man City
MAN CITY 0
(Santi Cazorla 24-pen, Olivier Giroud 67)
Manchester City are in a mess.
Their grip on the title is slipping, along with their manager’s credibility.
Manuel Pellegrini was left looking like a Premier League pauper by Arsene Wenger’s princely performance.
The Arsenal manager pulled off a tactical masterclass last night to win 2-0 and make a mockery of any idea of an empire being built at the Etihad.
Pellegrini’s battle to save not only City’s title challenge but also his job starts here.
The inept display against Arsenal was an early audition for the sack.
City conceded two at home for the third consecutive league game, hardly the stuff of champions.
And Pellegrini’s pretenders once again demonstrated an alarming tendency to find fatigue when they should be finding valour.
Most damningly of all, City’s manager looked like a naive pupil undone by the professor.
The ghosts of humiliations past clearly haunted Wenger when he picked his starting 11. This time, he put pragmatism ahead of principles.
In the past, the Gunners hoped to prevail by being pretty. But they suffered one reality check too many - 6-0 at Chelsea, 6-3 at Manchester City, 5-1 at Liverpool, 3-0 at Everton and even 1-0 at Manchester United last season and 2-0 at Chelsea and 2-0 at Liverpool, 3-0 at Everton and even 1-0 at Manchester United last season and 2-0 at Chelsea and 2-0 at Southampton this time around.
Finally, Wenger played the numbers game. He played safe.
Arsenal benefited from playing a settled back four, with Hector Bellerin excelling at right back, but the use of Francis Coquelin proved pivotal.
There were distant echoes of fellow countryman Claude Makelele as the Frenchman turned into a bricklayer, building a formidable defensive wall.
Arsenal’s softness was suddenly replaced with an unfamiliar solidity, leaving David Silva nowhere to go.
As for Jesus Navas, he looks a transfer waiting to happen.
His limited role was further undermined by the astonishing work-rate of both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez, who galloped along bother sides of the halfway line.
City were suddenly starved of space in their backyard and denied a shot on target in the first 45 minutes.
Arsenal’s inspired, intelligent counter- attacking ploy paid dividends when Vincent Kompany displayed more rust than the Titanic in the 23rd minute.
Bombing forward, Nacho Monreal looked to play a one-two when the City skipper blocked the fullback’s run in the box.
If the contact was slight, the obstruction was obvious. Santi Cazorla smashed his fifth goal of the season from the inevitable penalty.
Kompany was a distracted man. His lack of fitness was an issue - as it was for the peripheral Sergio Aguero - but the greater concern was tracking the runs of both Sanchez and Monreal.
Kompany missed the galvanising force ahead of him. City aren’t the same side without Yaya Toure.
Fernando and Fernandinho may sound like a Spanish singing duo, but they were an off-key pairing.
Pellegrini, who spent the first half looking like a sourpuss sucking on a lemon, swopped Stevan Jovetic for the isolated James Milner in the second half.
Aguero and Silva needed all the help they could get.
City suddenly found a pulse, but little penetration. Facing a five-point gap behind Chelsea, Pellegrini sent on the old boy from Stamford Bridge.
Frank Lampard had 25 minutes to twist the knife through Chelsea hearts but, instead, he watched his new side concede a second goal moments later.
From a lofted, innocuous Cazorla free-kick, Olivier Giroud drifted away from a dozing Fernando to nod Arsenal towards nirvana.
The Gunners were dreaming. For City, this was the nightmare before Chelsea. Their next league game is at Stamford Bridge.
The clock is already ticking to save City’s season.