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Dec 15, 2013

Arsenal's Etihad wobble shows their title nerves

On the one hand -- his right one -- Jack Wilshere brandishing a solitary, centrally-located finger toward the Manchester City fans was certainly an obscene, immature and costly gesture that will undoubtedly result in a one-game ban for the Arsenal midfielder. On the other, he was technically correct. The Gunners are still No. 1!

You'd be forgiven for not knowing this incontrovertible fact had you listened to all the math-challenged English commentators and pundits who pronounced Saturday's 6-3 beatdown by City as conclusive proof that after a fortuitous draw with Everton and a disappointing 2-0 Champions League defeat to Napoli, the wheels are finally coming off on Arsenal's title challenge.

Yet the quickest of glances at the table reveals that while one of its tires may have been slightly punctured at the Etihad, the 2013 Wengermobile is not exactly careering off the Prem's championship road on its rims.

No, for that sort of car wreck you have to visit White Hart Lane. Goodbye, Andre Villas-Boas; don't forget to "mind the gap" on your way out.

- Brewin: Title is City's to lose - Mangan: Gunners self-destruct - Curtis: Electric City zap Arsenal - Report: Ozil apologizes

The Gunners are currently two precious points ahead of -- wait for it -- a resurgent Liverpool, which dismantled Spurs 5-0 and cemented Villas-Boas' fate with an attacking display nearly as devastating as the one Man City laid on Arsenal. To hell with defense when you've got goal-mouth predators like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero to out-punch the other guys. The Uruguayan's brace gave him 17 in the league (proving yet again that Arsenal should have upped the bid to $40,000,002 to secure decent cover for Olivier Giroud) and four more than the Argentine, who opened the goal-fest at the Etihad with a blistering trademark volley before hobbling off with a thigh injury at the start of the second half.

How silly of Arsenal fans to think that just because Aguero had limped down the tunnel after 47 minutes that City's offensive juggernaut would disappear with him.

No team in the league has such a surfeit of pricey assassins -- Alvaro Negredo, Edin Dzeko, Jesus Navas, David Silva -- but what must be even more terrifying to opponents at the Etihad is that this season has seen new lethal marksmen springing full-blown from the verdant pitch on Maine Road. Who, for instance, would have ever thought that defensive midfielder Fernandinho would bag two goals against an Arsenal back line that began the game boasting the best defensive record in the league?

But the Brazilian, who joined City from Shakhtar Donetsk during the summer for a paltry $40 million, showed great skill and composure with both the inch-perfect curler and delicate chip that he put past a shell-shocked Wojciech Szczesny. It just goes to show that at City, if not at Spurs, you get what you overpay for -- except maybe for Stevan Jovetic.

Now that the previous week has seen the Sky Blues come from behind at the Allianz Arena to beat Champions League title-holder Bayern Munich 3-2 before annihilating the Prem leaders at home, Manuel Pellegrini's men can start to feel that they may be the best team in Europe, let alone England. Just because they've scored 35 goals in eight games at home doesn't mean that the field at the Etihad slopes downhill in whatever direction City is attacking. But the non-stop flow of pale blue shirts hyper-accelerating through midfield and reducing opposing defenses to rubble must make the experience of playing them at their lair feel like an avalanche. Spurs already learned this harsh lesson after City dropped a half dozen on them without a reply. At least the Magnificent Front-Running Gunners scored more goals on Saturday than the Sky Blues had conceded in their previous seven mismatches at the Etihad. Hey -- when your team gets whacked like Arsenal did, you look for solace wherever you can find it.

And yet, only for a fleeting moment after the Gunners' lone bright spot, Theo Walcott, had scored his second goal to make it 3-2 in the 63rd minute could Arsenal fans realistically entertain the idea that their team might emerge from the game with anything other than Post-Traumatic Etihad Syndrome.

"We're gonna win 4-3," sang the gaggle of Gooners who had trudged through the falling snow to be at New York's Football Factory for a 7:45 a.m. kickoff. But there was no real conviction in either their voices or the movement of their heroes on the big screen. If the supporters were tired from having to roll out of bed on a Saturday at such an ungodly hour, the players appeared absolutely spent from their Champions League travails despite Arsene Wenger telling the English press on the eve of the Man City game that "there is no fatigue, not on the medical analysis we have."

Maybe Arsenal is in need of a new team doctor, because the game I watched clearly showed several players dragging around an iron lung while struggling to move in 10-yard increments. I'm staring at you, Olivier Giroud -- and not because you're the sexiest scorer since Brandi Chastain.

In fairness to the Frenchman, he has been forced to play the full 90 almost every game because the alternative -- Nicklas Bendtner and his steam-punk pompadour -- is too painful to contemplate. However, it's no longer possible to ignore the physical toll of all those minutes on Giroud -- Saturday was his fourth straight scoreless game -- and here's hoping that no Arsenal player benefits more from the nine-day breather before next Monday’s showdown with Chelsea at the Emirates.

But it's unseemly to bang on about fatigue less than halfway into the season, so many of my Arsenal compadres at the Football Factory took to venting their bulging spleens at Martin Atkinson for the many critical offside decisions that went against the men in red. Still, I don't buy the conspiracy theory that the officials cost the Gunners the game. Six balls in the back of the Arsenal net had a lot to do with the defeat.

Ultimately the combination of comically bad defending and uncharacteristically careless midfield play was the main culprit. Jack Wilshere, for instance, couldn't hang onto the ball if his nicotine patch depended on it. He didn't just give away possession cheaply; he fully embraced the spirit of the season, gift-wrapping his passes in Santa paper for all in blue to enjoy. But his generosity notwithstanding, at least you always knew Wilshere was on the field.

Since when did Mesut Ozil join Midfielders Anonymous? The world's most expensive uber-playmaker once again checked his talent and manners at the Mancunian border.

Just as he did against Man United in the 1-0 loss at Old Trafford (by the way, I'm utterly shocked and devastated to hear that Robin van Persie is out for a month with a groin injury), Ozil hid in plain sight except for two notable spasms of activity. The first twitch was a laser cross to Walcott in space at the top of the box that the Arsenal winger bobbled into the Gunners' opening goal, while the second also involved an assist -- but not the kind one wants attached to Europe's King of The Killer Pass.

Pinned between two defenders on the right touchline near the Arsenal penalty area, Ozil side-footed the ball slightly behind Mathieu Flamini, who slipped trying to control it. In an eye-blink Fernandinho pounced, dispossessing the off-balance Frenchman and sweetly curling a shot into the far corner to put City ahead 3-1. Even world-class players like Ozil are allowed the odd loose pass, but the German seemed much more interested in the postgame tea than the actual match. Ozil does the subtle things that don't necessarily manifest themselves on the score sheet -- his ability to create space for others, his adroit interchanging of flanks, his David Hasselhoff impressions that cheer up the lads in the showers -- but would it kill him to try to win the ball back after Ya Ya Toure or Jesus Navas takes it off his cultured foot?

On this day, however, it wasn't Ozil's indifferent approach that enraged his fellow countryman and friend Per Mertesacker at the final whistle. The big German defender was vexed that Ozil had failed to amble over to the away end and applaud the team's traveling supporters who had driven several hundred miles to witness his team’s debacle.

Mertesacker, who himself had endured a rare poor outing, jabbed his finger in the face of the former Real Madrid midfielder and reminded him that Jose Mourinho was no longer around to offer up the requisite excuses. Ozil responded with his most energetic display of the afternoon putting together a fine amalgam of profanity and a dismissive wave of his arms. Of course, that's just how he says "I love you."

The next couple of weeks will reveal a lot about Arsenal's chances of winning the league. For now, though, we'll leave the final word to Jack Wilshere and his naughty middle finger, which is how the English say "Come and knock us off our perch."