Arsenal masters of their own downfall
Both Arsenal and Manchester City must get used to life without Robin van Persie if they are to prosper. Arsene Wenger's admittance that he knew his sale of the Dutchman would hand Manchester United the title caused exasperation among Gunners. Football managers are not supposed to admit in public they know their place.
Roberto Mancini has made continued pointed references to the failure of his quest to sign Van Persie. Another goal had contributed to City kicking off ten points behind. The deficit was cut to seven, with no little controversy along the way. City won a league match at Arsenal for the first time in 38 years and remain a living, breathing title contender.
"United is very strong. In this moment, they play very well, but the season is not done," said Roberto Mancini. "We know we are behind, we know we cannot stay seven points behind."
Arsenal failed to capitalise at all on Tottenham and Everton's 0-0 draws. They were masters of their own downfall, even if officialdom was being widely blamed. Referee Mike Dean was targeted, but the true culprit was Laurent Koscielny for producing an inarguable case for dismissal. By the time the numbers were evened up and Vincent Kompany was dismissed for a two-legged, if not two-footed, lunge on Jack Wilshere, Arsenal were a lost cause.
Koscielny was dismissed by Mike Dean for a grappling of Edin Dzeko that would have been illegal if this were a rugby match. The Bosnian would have had a clear goalscoring opportunity without such clumsy groping by the Frenchman. A penalty and a sending off is the decision that Dean has been ordered to make. Discussions of whether such an early red card is in the spirit of the game have merit, but a foul is a foul is a foul in the eyes of the directives that referees must adhere to, and whatever the time of the offence too. Not that Arsenal fans saw it that way, of course.
Their rancour switched to brief joy when Dzeko's resultant penalty was saved by Wojciech Szczesny, though almost by accident. The stadium gasped as one as the ball rebounded from the 'keeper's backside, off the opposite post and into the grateful arms of the Pole in the goal.
Szczesny's save had prevented Arsenal being punished three times for the same incident - Koscielny will be banned too - but that served as little consolation when City soon made their advantage tell.
The anger at Dean only deepened when Lukas Podolski was penalised for what looked a nothing foul on Javi Garcia. City took the free-kick quickly, after Dean had pulled back an Arsenal attack. James Milner's finish after a superb pass from Carlos Tevez was no point of debate. It was unerring and true. "1-0 to the referee" was the predictable terrace moan.
The blame game should have switched to Arsenal's defence for City's second. Zabaleta had escaped round the back. Tevez failed to make a proper connection. Szczesny could only palm into Dzeko's path. This time, the Bosnian had his goal. There was no audible rage at the ref. Instead, an eerie silence descended. It was the sound of resignation. The game was dead as a contest.
"We are guilty of giving two cheap goals away," said Arsene Wenger, who played his card of not seeing the incident for both the Koscielny and Kompany sendings off.
"We have to live with the decision. We had already started too timid. We didn't start with enough confidence. On both of the goals we could have done better. We are too nervous to play a serene way at home. The fact is that we need to be a bit more confident in this type of game. We need to find more defensive stability."
Arsenal did not possess the presence of mind to believe in a legendary comeback with a man down. That fragility is the reason they are not challenging the Mancunian candidates. City were too professional to let them back in, even after Kompany's removal. A far greater concern is the captain's absence now that Kolo Toure is headed to South Africa. Joleon Lescott will be given game time at last.
"For the first, the rules are the last man," said Roberto Mancini, who said the first sending off was not even a matter of contention before launching a vigorous defence of Kompany. "The other was absolutely not a red card because he took the ball.
"No foul, not even a foul. Yes, now it's impossible for us to lose a player for three games. I think it was one-footed, I saw," said Mancini, explaining that he had seen the incident again on television and announcing his intention to appeal. He chose to ignore the danger of Kompany's lunge; Wilshere had been sent spinning into the air by its force.
"We do an appeal for Vincent, because I think we can win," said Mancini. "We have a problem because we are missing a lot of players."
"62 quid and we're still here," sang a defiant group of fans in blue scarves. Manchester City's allocation was 900 short of those who had refused to pay the steepling price for the privilege of attending a match where a hoodoo was broken, and a title defence kept alive. "You're s*** and you charge too much," taunted the Blue Moonies as victory neared inevitability. The champions had maintained a tight grip on midfield all match with Milner especially excelling.
An Olivier Giroud chance was Arsenal's best effort of a second half where hope had been all but abandoned. Theo Walcott's late drive into Joe Hart was the best product of the post-Kompany period, but by then, the home crowd, by now dwindling as many headed for the exits, occupied themselves with taunting the referee.
They were misguided in their anger. In a time when it is de rigueur to bury referees for poor decisions, Dean should be praised for getting the big decisions correct.