By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 0-0 MANCHESTER CITY
The Emirates Stadium gnashed and wailed in frustration as Arsenal were unable to find the goal to give them second place in the Premier League. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini shook off criticism for his team's approach from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas - which was gentle compared to the vituperate chanting from the home support - to ensure that City are yet to lose to any of their challengers for a top four finish this season.
With both David Silva and Mario Balotelli absent due to injury, and Edin Dzeko yet to make his signing from Wolfsburg official, Mancini made the conscious decision to try to keep a clean sheet and hit Arsenal on the break. He opted to position the Brazilian Jo and the industrious James Milner either side of Carlos Tevez, with the mercurial but flaky Adam Johnson left on the bench.
Arsenal kept the same XI that impressed recently against both Chelsea and Birmingham. Indeed, City's tactics were not too dissimilar to Chelsea's. But on that night, Arsenal played at a breakneck tempo and left Chelsea choking on their fumes. And it seemed to be their intention to do so again. They attacked from the off and almost took the lead three minutes in, with Robin Van Persie unable to reach Jack Wilshere's cross with the goal gaping. Joe Hart was then forced into saving from Wilshere a minute later and the tone of the match was set.
Thereafter City managed to plug most of the gaps, with strong displays from all of their back four. But Arsenal were determined to draw first blood, and with more luck they would have done so. Van Persie and Fabregas both struck Hart's right-hand post before half-time. They continued to probe at City's rearguard, but were playing far too narrow, making it easier for the team from Eastlands to put up a trojan-like wall to keep out the red-shirted hordes.
After the interval, in which a member of the crowd proposed to his girlfriend to the inevitable and eye-rolling chants of "You don't know what you're doing", Arsenal redoubled their efforts to find a way to break the deadlock. But this was their fourth game in ten days and no side relies more on physical sharpness to be effective than the Gunners. Their dazzling and intricate passing only works when they move the ball at pace and while the spirit was willing, after putting a lot into the victories over Chelsea and Birmingham, the flesh was becoming increasingly weak.
A promising 20 minute spell culminated in Van Persie inducing a world class save from Hart after he unleashed a thunderbolt from outside the box that seemed destined for the top corner of the net. The save from Hart not only preserved the goalless scoreline but seemed to sap the belief from Arsenal. Like a pacesetter in a marathon who cannot shake off a member of the chasing pack, Arsenal looked as if they knew that on this night, they would find no way past Hart.
One of the first things that Mancini has done since arriving in England is making sure that City are amongst the fittest teams in the Premier League. City may not be able to outplay you, but they can outlast you.
And if they had shown a bit more guile in possession, they could have headed north with all three points rather than just one. With Arsenal beginning to tire, they looked potentially vulnerable if put under pressure at the back. But City were awful in possession. The sum total of their attacking intent was to play long balls over the top for Tevez, Jo and Milner to run onto. The introduction of Johnson made no difference to these tactics, and the young Teesider was in Gael Clichy's pocket for the length of his 25 minutes on the pitch.
While it was clear that the inventiveness of Silva was missed, City had laid the foundation for a smash-and-grab victory. Their reticence to take the initiative will frustrate and baffle many neutral fans of the game. That, compounded with their pretty shameless attempts to waste time (even in the first-half) caused consternation among the Arsenal fans. Generally a reserved bunch, the stadium was fizzing with anticipation from long before kick-off. It was consistently the loudest I've ever heard the ground, and as the time ran out, they turned their frustration onto the City players and fans. Chants of "Boring boring City" rang out as Arsenal, now completely enervated, gave one last effort to find a winner. Hart made a late save from a Van Persie free-kick and the game was completed by a double sending-off for Bacary Sagna and Pablo Zabaleta, which was a something and nothing incident really.
The celebrations from the City fans in the away section of the crowd spoke volumes, and explains why Mancini's modus operandi is 'safety first', especially in big games. Not only is his remit to finish in the top four (which with Chelsea's continuing malaise and Spurs having to keep an eye on the Champions League, should be accomplished comfortably), but the bulk of the City fans aren't too worried about being the biggest fish in the pond. They've had to deal with mediocrity for so long that they're just happy to be in the pond at all. Mancini is no fool and knows that rolling the dice right now is as likely to result in a one as in a six.
Arsenal are not far from reaching the Premier League summit. But they need to find a way to win matches when they're not operating at their maximum. Manchester United are the only team to have done that consistently this season, and it's why they are in control at the top of the table.
As for City, this period of grace Mancini's been given is not infinite. It's said that a league season is a "marathon and not a sprint". In fact it's both. Right now he has a team of marathon runners; hard-working, honest and quite dull. To turn them from contenders into champions, Mancini will need to find a sprinter or two.
After all, who would you rather watch? Paula Radcliffe or Usain Bolt?
Fabianski - 6, Sagna - 6, Djourou - 7, Koscielny - 6, Clichy - 7, Song - 7, Wilshere - 6 (Bentdner - 6), Fabregas - 6, Walcott - 6 (Arshavin - 4), Van Persie - 6, Nasri - 6
Don't forget to download 'The Greatest Events in Sporting History'. Available at www.simplysyndicated.com or at http://sportsevents.libsyn.com/. E-mail us at email@example.com and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH