The disappointment that engulfed Manchester City’s 1-1 draw at Arsenal is a paradoxical measure of the club’s progress under Manuel Pellegrini.
As the City players trooped off the Emirates pitch it felt like a defeat rather than the continuation of an admirable 10-game unbeaten away run, comprising seven wins and three draws.
Instead of a point gained, the emotions screamed of two points squandered. City had failed to overcome a makeshift Arsenal team whose pre-match confidence levels must have been lower than a snake’s belly.
After a week from hell and deprived of key players Ozil, Wilshire, Ramsey, Walcott and Koscielny, the Gunners somehow summoned up the will, skill and determination to cancel out a first half where City were clearly superior.
The double dose of euphoria coursing through City’s veins following the emphatic midweek win at Old Trafford, topped up by a John Terry own goal-inspired Chelsea defeat at Crystal Palace, evaporated as Arsenal displayed an admirable spirit not usually associated with Arsene Wenger’s mentally fragile squad.
Only time will tell if the outcome of this game of two starkly contrasting halves, contributed to the coronation of City as Premier League champions 2014 or, gifted the crown to either Liverpool or Chelsea.
Taking four points from away trips to Manure and the Gunners within five days would ordinarily be cause for celebration…but not this time around.
This match marked a watershed in Manchester City’s rapid evolution, so quick that it borders on revolution, under the astute stewardship of Sheikh Mansour.
The expectation levels going into it were sky high and the feelings of frustration upon exiting it, palpable. Once again, it could easily give rise to the often aired argument that City have never had it so good, citing rose-tinted comparisons of away day horrors at Lincoln, York and Wycombe.
But that was then and the present day reality is that City – minus just one key player, Sergio Aguero – should have put this game to bed by half time.
A proportion of diehard City supporters, those who have carried the burden of pain through the thin, thin and anorexic days of chronic Manchester City mismanagement and underachievement – might be content to revel in what are, by comparison, halcyon days.
The ‘You’ve never had it so good…’ brigade are right in so many ways, but that shouldn’t obscure the assertion that City – circa 2013/14 – are still more than capable of repeating past sins and wasting present day opportunities.
It could and should have been a platform to state, unequivocally, that Pellegrini’s men were ready to seize the moment, move to the top of PL table, still with games in hand and a vastly superior goal difference.
When David Silva opened the scoring in the 18th minute the stage was set for a repeat of the ‘Gory Gory Man Utd’ spectacle, when City had ripped their nearest, but far from dearest, neighbours apart.
Operating at a quick swashbuckling tempo, City exerted their authority but, tellingly, did not build up the handsome lead deserving of their approach work.
Even as they dominated there was always a niggling element of profligacy about City’s play in and around Szczeny’s goal.
Silva had been a pre-match doubt, such are the levels of punishment meted out to his ankles, but the Spaniard battled through any pain and discomfort. His sixth goal of the season was uncannily akin to City’s opener at The Swamp.
Edin Dzeko – the scorer on Tuesday night – turned provider, via Szczeny’s right goalpost, as his low struck drive cannoned off the ‘woodwork’ into Silva’s path.
Merlin’s instinctive reactions were enough to see him divert the ball into the gaping net.
The goal came six minutes after referee Mike Dean had failed to book the Gunner’s lively Rosicky after the Czech midfielder’s penalty appeal, following virtually negligible contact from Zabaleta.
But Dean, who officiated the corresponding fixture last season when he sent of Laurent Koscielny and Vincent Kompany, wasn’t slow to start showing yellow cards aplenty to City.
Yaya Toure was rightly booked for needlessly pulling Rosicky back in the middle of the park. Quite why Yaya indulges in this stupid behaviour remains a mystery.
Kompany was booked for a body-check on Arteta just seconds before brilliantly tackling Giroud, as he shaped to shoot towards Joe Hart’s goal.
The City skipper has an ‘all-action’ style whereby he runs the risk of bookings, but referees often seem too eager to take his name.
The irritating Rosicky was eventually given the booking he so richly deserved on 42 minutes after a bad tackle on Clichy, well after the ball had gone.
Silva and Garcia couldn’t complain about their yellow cards, but City could and should complain about Dean’s inconsistency.
Arteta’s 69th minute pull back on Nasri went unpunished. It was exactly the same type of foul that saw Yaya booked.
Rosicky should have seen red for a third bookable offence – when he scythed Silva down in the 85th minute. Dean bottled it again.
Back to the actual football and City’s luck was out in the 52nd minute when Szcezny fumbled Jesus Navas’ low driven cross. The ball ricocheted off the Polish keeper onto the shin of the blameless Dzeko and painfully past the post. 2-0 would have killed the game off.
60 seconds later, it was very much game on as Flamini swept home Arsenal’s ultimately deserved equaliser – wrecking City’s hopes of a club record six consecutive PL clean sheets.
Having not conceded for nearly 8½ hours, Joe Hart thwarted Podolski on the hour when the German striker looked set to give the Gunners an undeserved lead.
The ‘consolation’ of this stalemate in North London is that City still control their own Premier League destiny.
Tough away trips to both the blue and red halves of Merseyside await, but City need to focus on the job in hand and what will be a real test from a lively looking Southampton.
A returning Aguero, albeit from the sub’s bench, on Saturday lunchtime could be the catalyst for PL glory. Having missed 13 PL games so far, a Sergio scoring streak would spell bad luck for City’s opponents and rivals alike.
By David Walker
Today’s READ BUT NEVER RED is dedicated to my lovely Little Lady Debi – a proud & loving mum to Jack & Mollie – and to all Mums the world over.
Were it not for them it actually would be a case of… ‘WE’RE NOT, WE’RE NOT REALLY HERE, WE’RE NOT, WE’RE NOT REALLY HERE…’