Arsenal 1 (Arteta 87) Man City 0
Sometimes the scoreline doesn’t even close to telling the full story. It looks like we pinched a tight game in the latter stages, but in reality this was one of the best and most passionate performances we’ve seen from Arsenal in recent years. From the first minute we were first to everything, running City ragged down both flanks with a series of incisive moves, only to be denied by last ditch defending (usually from the excellent Kompany), the occasional poor decision with the final ball, and on a couple of occasions, the frame of the goal.
Before each of those instances, however, we contrived to do our own goalline defending for City – Van Persie’s goalbound header striking the back of Vermaelen before bouncing up on to the crossbar and away. Remarkably enough, it wasn’t to be the closest we got to scoring without actually putting the ball in the net – that was reserved for a second half moment where Walcott’s shot was pushed on to the post by Hart, Vermaelen slipped and sliced his tap in, but the ball still fell to Benayoun two yards out, only for his shot to deflect off Lescott, then the other post, before going behind for a corner. It was a proper jaw drop moment.
Earlier in the second half, Van Persie had already struck the woodwork, heading another delicious Song chipped pass on to the base of the post, and with Kompany snuffing out the rest of our chances, the game was heading for the most unfortunate of nil-nils, until Arteta snapped into yet another tackle in the centre of the park, advanced with more purpose than any of the City defenders coming to meet him, and slammed a fierce drive beyond Hart’s despairing hand with minutes to go. Joy unconfined.
To say that we deserved it would be a massive understatement. City looked flattened by United’s earlier win, and came into the game with body language that betrayed their inner admission that the title had already gone. We were winning the battles all over the park, and in the first half an hour in particular were showing City exactly why we’d let Clichy move to them – Walcott and Sagna were tearing him apart. All that was missing was the goal, but no player could be faulted in their application or quality – we were far superior in every department, and 3-0 or 4-0 would not have been flattering.
In the end, it was a victory for a team that fought for each other, against a team that fought each other. I’ll come to Balotelli in a moment, because there are some important things to touch on there, but City showed a clear division between members of the defence (Hart, Kompany, Lescott) who were desperate to win, and the creative players (Nasri, Balotelli, Aguero) who offered nothing positive to justify their enormous salaries and apparently lofty ambitions.
By contrast, we were fighting for each other, covering the spaces brilliantly, with Koscielny and Song particularly imperious once again. Koscielny will miss two games after picking up his tenth booking of the season, but that really was the only downside of the day.
However, we are enormously lucky that Koscielny’s suspension was the worst moment. Thanks to the sustained idiocy of Mario Balotelli, we could easily have seen a repeat of Diaby/Eduardo/Ramsey, and the permanent damaging of a player’s career. From the word go, the Italian was petulant both in his approach to the game and his attitude to his teammates, who never hid their frustration with him. But the worst aspect was his tackling, if you can even call it that.
Alex Song is lucky that his leg is still in one piece after Balotelli thundered into a studs up challenge at knee height, sending him spinning away in agony. Had Song’s leg been planted, it would have snapped like a twig. Incredibly, the officials missed it, and although Martin Atkinson can claim a poor view, the linesman was unobstructed just ten yards away. It was the clearest of red cards, and he can certainly expect a call from the FA (which would result in five games being added to his ban for the red card he later received, thanks to a series of previous violent conduct suspensions). That Song got up was an enormous relief – on another day we could easily have been analysing another shattered leg and wrecked career.
It makes me angry that we let players get to this stage. Balotelli is set up to be the pantomime villain, but there is nothing remotely funny about him. He is an idiot, plain and simple, an immature child who throws his toys out of the pram when things don’t go his way, and as shown today can put the careers of his fellow professionals at risk without concern. Despite getting away with his shocking challenge on Song, he went into three more awful challenges on Sagna, the second and third of which saw him pick up yellow cards, yet he still had the temerity to show incredulity at the decision to dismiss him in the final moments of the game.
He was a disgrace throughout the match, and his teammates knew it. Joe Hart was shown calling him unspeakable names that I’m sure he followed up in the dressing room, but while the press laud him for being so entertaining, he will continue to relish the spotlight, and will maintain his crazy antics until someone gets seriously hurt. Then, of course, those who have delighted in giving him the headlines he craves will protest their innocence and condemn.
He should never have been allowed to get to this point. He is, put simply, a tool and a liability, and showed today that he has little regard for his fellow professionals, whether they are on his team or not. Today is one of the reasons I don’t believe a ‘ban a player as long as their victim is out‘ rule works – yes, it would mean Shawcross etc would have been suspended for a long time, but equally Balotelli would get away unscathed. Personally, I advocate simply slapping players who commit these atrocious challenges with enormous bans, irrespective of the damage they cause. Why wait for a broken leg first?
And what of the officials? As a team, they put the players at risk today by allowing Balotelli to stay on the field (a charge that can also be levelled at Mancini for not withdrawing him). Had Sagna been hurt by any of Balotelli’s subsequent X-rated lunges, they would have been equally culpable.
I’m just relieved that Song and Sagna got up each time, and we don’t have that situation. I hope Balotelli gets the book thrown at him, but I still don’t believe his inevitable suspension will sufficiently match the crime.
But enough about one of the biggest idiots in our game today – back to us, and a display of unity and team spirit that anyone will find difficult to match. There are now combinations all over the field clicking together – the midfield trio of Arteta, Song and Rosicky (who was again outstanding) are intertwining superbly, while the back five are becoming increasingly difficult to breach. It seems to have gone unnoticed that our form is still excellent despite Van Persie’s mini goal drought, and while there have been moments in the season where we were a little reliant on him, the team as a whole have really stepped up of late.
How crucial today could be. Enjoy your evening. Unless you are Mario Balotelli. Or Samir Nasri. Or….