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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Arsene Wenger's hidden gem

Arsenal
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Lack of ammunition costs Gunners

In Robin Van Persie, Arsenal possess the only Premier League striker who could make Man City's attack stronger, now that Wayne Rooney is presumably a no-go. He would be costly, and there has been little evidence that he would actually move to the Etihad Campus, but in Arsenal's exit from the League Cup, further proof was supplied of his worth to his current club. Manchester City's progress came via a pincer movement involving two extremely highly-priced strikers, while Van Persie, exiled by one of his injury 'red zones', could only look on in a fetching leather jacket.

Tight games are won by proven players holding their nerve. Edin Dzeko's ball to Adam Johnson was flicked into the direction of Sergio Aguero, a move made by almost £80 million of talent. The Argentine scored unerringly, his coolness in total contrast to the previous efforts of Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Yung, two budget signings who looked what they were paid for. City's first effort on target had won the match, to serve as proof that money changes everything in football.

The League Cup, in its various guises, has often provided hurt for Arsene Wenger down the years but no occasion was more painful than last season's final defeat to Birmingham City. The stealing in of Obafemi Martins on to a catastrophic mix-up between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny precipitated a loss of form and focus that ended Arsenal's hopes on four fronts in a matter of weeks. It had been Arsenal's best chance of a trophy for some time.

Defeat was less painful this time, despite it coming from a similarly late goal. "You may say we lost the easiest competition to win, but if you look at this season and the teams still in it, it doesn't look so easy," said Wenger. "I want to take the positives. How far can we go this season? If we keep this attitude then we have hope." In a move that had appeared designed to prevent further hurt, at a time when a feel-good factor has been restored to the Emirates, Wenger reintroduced his policy of playing the callow and promising rather than the experienced and trusted. In midfield he was rewarded by energetic displays from Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, and in defence from Miguel. In attack, the burgeoning talent of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain flourished.

Yet Park and Chamakh would form an unfamiliar and unlikely partnership. The latter has been linked with a €10 million move to PSG, a price scoffed at by many, and looking borderline extortionate as yet another lethargic and blunt performance was turned in. He is so devoid of confidence that change can only be a good thing where he once looked so full of promise. A trip over his own heels, a shot that was blazed well wide and an eyes-closed miss of a golden headed chance in the last minute were chilling evidence of a player who has completely lost his way.

Park's previous start, against Marseille, had seen an early miss cause his head to go down, and when he was denied by City keeper Costel Pantilimon's admirable change of direction in the 11th minute, his mettle was again tested. He would never again be granted such a great chance, but his hard work and touch far exceeded the contribution of his partner for the evening.

Special attention from both sets of fans came for Samir Nasri. Booed by his former admirers, and regaled in a song once sung by Arsenal fans but now by his Mancunian followers, the Frenchman had much to prove in the light of relative anonymity compared to the wonders of David Silva. This was to be no figurative sticking up of fingers at those who have lambasted for supposed greed. Mancini may have moved him across his midfield throughout the match, but Nasri never supplied the influence he once provided when a home player at the Emirates.

"Nasri can play better," defended Roberto Mancini. "Maybe this night is the first night he came back to Arsenal. It not easy to come back. He can play better because he is a top player and can play well."

Nasri was overshadowed by those who were once his understudies, as Frimpong and Coquelin worked exceedingly hard, while Oxlade-Chamberlain, a replacement of sorts and briefly a colleague, thrilled in the first half in particular. Unlike Jack Wilshere a year ago, he has been wrapped in cotton wool, but Theo Walcott needs to retain the form of his life to keep him out for long on this evidence.

"Chamberlain has improved a lot. I have been very patient with him up until now. It was important to hold him back," said Wenger on the subject of his latest gem. "I was impressed by the consistency of his game. Two months ago you pushed him off the ball easily but now his resistance is there."

City had toiled in the first half, leading Mancini and David Platt to reach for their tactics sheets and change the formation as Aguero came on for a rather unhappy looking Aleksandar Kolarov. Owen Hargreaves, making his first appearance for six weeks, and only his second in laser blue, did most of his work in deep tandem with Nigel De Jong, and, in the time-honoured fashion of an ageing player whose legs may have gone, did much pointing and exhorting in the absence of too much running around. He lasted 80 minutes but could not repeat the goal-scoring fairy story of his first City appearance.

The goal arrived when class told, and youthful naivety had erred. Arsenal were undermanned after their own corner at the other end, and Aguero did the rest, the type of clinical job their own attack had failed to provide. This time, exit from the competition did not feel quite so hurtful. At least Arsene Wenger knew where it had gone wrong. "We missed experience in the final third," he said.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Honourable mentions to Miguel, Frimpong and Coquelin in red and Pantilimon in blue, but Oxlade-Chamberlain looked the most real deal of all. Arsenal have another youngster of limitless promise, it seems, and a good left foot too, judging by his thunderous drive on the City goal in the first half.

ARSENAL VERDICT: A defence made up of four central defenders looked like somewhat Pulis-ian in approach yet Johan Djourou and Miguel both showed they are defenders of versatility. Here were more positives on an evening where defeat was rather undeserved for Arsenal yet arrived via an inability to put the ball in the net.

MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: That dominance over most other English teams never happened here, and midfield was a particular area of danger in the first half hour. That the Manchester set of journalists were singing the praise of Romanian keeper Pantilimon says much, but this is a squad made up of imported winners. Aguero did what he is paid for and why he was paid for.

TUNNEL OF LOVE?: A Twitter row between Samir Nasri and Emmanuel Frimpong of a few months ago resumed with some harsh words exchanged at the final whistle, but no more than that, said an Arsenal press officer who leapt to Wenger's defence when repeated questions were asked about thrown punches. "Words exchanged and that was it. Just noise," was the description offered.

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