With Lee ‘United Fan` Mason`s gift to Alex Ferguson earlier today, Mancini`s charges had it all to do to hang on to United in the chase for the title. Anything less than a win today would see City fall eight points behind their bitter rivals which would mean the title race was all but over. United hadn`t played free flowing beautiful football but they had only dropped two points in their last twelve games.
The team today showed a number of changes, most notably, the omission of City`s early season match winner David Silva. The team sheet read as follows: Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy, Milner, Yaya, Barry, Nasri, Balotelli and Aguero. The subs bench consisted of: Pantillimon, Richards, Kolarov, Pizarro, De Jong, Dzeko and Tevez.
Would City be able to beat an Arsenal side looking to go third and shackle probably the Premier League`s best striker in the supposedly City bound Van Persie. Would they be able to close the gap to five points and keep their title hopes alive and would Mancini be able to get his tactics, so poor in the last few games, right today when he needed it most.
Arsenal won the toss and kicked off playing right to left and City were soon forcing the ball back to the keeper. Within two minutes, City were given a clear indication of what they were up against after Arsenal earnt a free kick when Yaya tugged at Rosicky`s shirt. To Yaya and his team mates amazement, despite it being a nothing foul and his first foul, Atkinson brandished a yellow card. Make up your own mind about the Ref`s treatment of City this season and the FA`s handling of the red card to Kompany.
In the ninth minute Toure was floored by a high tackle which left him with a dead leg. The ref waved play on as the Ivorian was lying in agony on the turf. Minutes after this and it was Balotelli who was being wrestled to the floor. Atkinson again ignored this but instead awarded a free kick to Arsenal as the city player showed his frustration.
The opening fifteen minutes had been dominated by Arsenal as City rebuffed attacks from the left and right. The home team were being afforded amazing protection by the ref as free kicks were awarded for any minor infringement. City on the other hand had had Hart winded during a corner, Toure dead legged and substituted in fifteen minutes and Balotelli fouled every time he went near the ball. Arsenal were playing well and were clearly buoyed by having the ref on their side.
In the 16th minute City were forced into their first substitution as the savage attack on Toure left him unable to carry on and as City lost arguably most influential player. Pizarro his replacement had little first team experience and the team would surely be weakened by the lack of protection afforded them by the ref.
Three minutes later and a clearly frustrated Balotelli went in for a high tackle on Song as he went for the ball with pace. Although a foot lower than Song`s on Yaya, it did leave Song prone on the turf feeling somewhat like Yaya had earlier in the game.
City were constantly being pegged back as Arsenal earnt corner after corner and with their tallest outfield player already a casualty of the game, this was a worry. The midfield for Arsenal were playing with the belief that the merest touch from a City player would earn them a free kick, whilst City were playing with the knowledge that only GBH or attempted murder would lead to them winning a free kick.
City`s first corner of the match came in the 25th minute and they nearly capitalised as a low cross from Barry was met by Balotelli. His contact was poor and the ball skewed wide, but the opening was there.
Next it was the turn of the linesman to show his colours as Barry played a wonderful through ball to Aguero. The Argentinian began to turn his man for a run on goal but was stopped by the linesman`s flag as he was adjudged offside despite his marker being behind him when he received the ball. Make of that what you will.
In the 28th minute as Aguero chased down the ball, Koscielny, in possession, slipped and went over. Aguero took the ball but was ready to break but again Atkinson blew up this time awarding Arsenal a free kick as City were adjudged to have unfairly used the pitch to trip up the Arsenal player.
Despite facing a literal torrent of attacks in the opening thirty minutes and having to deal with match official hell bent on making sure City were at a disadvantage, as the half wore on, they started to see more of the ball. Most of their attacks were being stopped by shirt pulls or illegal tackles that were ignored by the ref but it was a glimmer of hope.
33 minutes in and Atkinson once more made either a glaring mistake or a deliberate cheat as Barry made a wonderful slide tackle to dispossess Rosicky. Barry took the ball cleanly playing it out for an Arsenal throw in but despite this, Atkinson awarded Arsenal a free kick in a dangerous position. How many more times in the remaining 55 minutes would the ref either blatantly ignore the rules or make a highly unusual number of mistakes.
On the stroke of 37 minutes, City broke after a wonderful pass by Pizarro. Aguero took the ball shaped to shoot but instead passed it toward Balotelli. Both Balotelli and Sagna went for the ball. Both players had their feet raised to the same height but it was who Balotelli caught Sagna on the ankle. A millisecond different and it would have been the other way round. Atkinson, quite understandably by now did not see it that way and issued Balotelli with City`s second yellow of the game.
As the half drew to a close, City could draw solace that despite Arsenal`s almost complete domination of the first thirty minutes, despite Atkinson`s either total incompetence or disgraceful bias, despite the ugly tackle that forced Yaya off, they were going in to the changing rooms at half time on an equal footing at half time and had everything to play for in the second half. There were a number of positives. Kompany and Lescott were looking imperious. Pizarro was coping with the pace of the game, The Blues have scored more second half goals than any other team in the Premier League and Tevez was on the bench.
City kicked of the second half with no changes in the one that finished the first and they were out of the blocks quickly breaking down the left through Clichy who put in a wicked cross. Seconds later and Aguero was wrestled to the ground on the edge of the Arsenal box. The City players didn`t expect or get the deserved free kick and it was Arsenal that broke down the Blues right side.
The game was much more open now as both sides were enjoying possession. Arsenal were being stopped by the magnificent pairing of Kompany and Lescott. City on the other hand were being stopped by fouls and the ref who saw a foul every time a Blue shirted player got in a promising position.
In the fiftieth minute Aguero was played through by Clichy. As he chased down the ball two Arsenal defenders nearly flattened him. He kept his feet outmuscling them both only to be stopped by the home side`s best defender?.you`ve guessed it Atkinson who gave a free kick to Arsenal.
In the 53rd minute Zabaleta broke down the right chasing a long ball. He got onto the ball only to be stopped by the linesman`s flag waving that the ball had gone out of play when clearly it had not. City would clearly need a miracle to win this game facing not only the home side`s fluent football, but the officials either unbelievable incompetence or total anti-City bias.
Third yellow card of the game went once more to a City player, this time in the shape of Milner who was adjudged to have illegally fouled his man as he won the ball.
In the 57th minute City broke again on the left as Clichy`s pace worked for his team. Despite having his shirt pulled and having opponent arms round his waist, he managed to cross the ball from which City won a corner. The ref must either have missed the two yellow card offences perpetrated on the City full back or chose not to apply the rules when City may have gained an advantage.
A minute later and the ref was forced to issue a yellow card to an Arsenal player as their freshly introduced full back Santos attempted to cripple Balotelli. The feiry Italian was pulled back by team mate Zabaleta as he went to remonstrate with Santos.
The best and only real chance of the game soon followed as Song floated a ball into the City box which, for the first time, beat Kompany and left Van Persie with a free header. The goal looked a certainty but lucky for City the prolific striker`s touch deserted him and he missed his chance.
Arsenal were starting to edge the possession again as City were looking stretched. With twenty five minutes left, something would have to change if Mancini`s men were to take the three points away. The game was looking more and more like it would end a draw as the fluent Arsenal attack could not pierce the City defence.
On the stroke of 67 minutes a second yellow card was awarded to Arsenal after Koscielny`s studs were firmly planted into the standing ankle of Barry who was lucky to walk away with his leg intact. This surely should have been a red, but that would have offered City an advantage which the ref clearly didn`t want to do.
In the 69th minute Arsenal had the ball in City`s net after two kicks on Pizarro were ignored allowing Arsenal to win possession. The ball went to Walcott who took too long to play the ball to Van Persie and allowed the City line to step up, leaving the Arsenal front man in an offside position when he finished.
Following the Arsenal ‘no goal`, the home team enjoyed a long spell of attacking the City box, but each time the ball went in one of four excellent defenders either blocked, tackled or somehow got in the way. The Blues were starting to look tired. The home side were committing men forward, but each time City looked to break, a poor pass or tired legs let them down.
With 15 minutes left on the clock Arsenal looked certain to score again as Balotelli was left for dead. Somehow Hart Zabaleta and Kompany managed to stop a goal despite Rosicky being one foot away from the goal line with the ball at his feet.
Mancini then made a tactical change withdrawing Nasri and replacing him with Kolarov who slotted in at left midfield to offer Clichy more protection and Balotelli moved up front alongside Aguero. Arsenal were still committing players forward and the hope was that City could hit them on the break.
With ten minutes left on the clock, Balotelli went on a run down the City right taking on three Arsenal defenders. Ramsey managed to bring him down after not one, not two, but three attempts and despite giving City a free kick, no card was issued, although surely deserving.
In the 82nd minute, City earnt a corner after a good cross by Balotelli. Mancini chose this moment to introduce Tevez for his compatriot Aguero who in all honesty had looked off the pace today. Could Tevez save City`s season and make up for some of what had gone before?
The ref once again ignored a clear City free kick on the edge of the Arsenal box as Tevez was wrestled to the ground. Seconds later and Arsenal were breaking toward the City goal. Arteta took possession of the ball thirty yards out from the City goal. He took two steps and hit a peach of a shot which curled away from Hart`s outstretched fingers and nestled into the City net. A goal to Arsenal, a great strike by Arteta and a wonderful assist to Atkinson who ignored a City free kick at the other end of the pitch which led seconds later to the Arsenal goal.
With a minute to go insult was added to injury as Balotelli went in for a ball with Sagna. The Arsenal player`s reaction was as if he had been struck on the leg by a hammer. He rolled and writhed until the obvious second yellow was issued to Balotelli.
City`s defence had been amazing today fighting a rear guard action against a magnificent Arsenal attack. The midfield lessened by the early and enforced withdrawal of Yaya struggled to cope with the pace of Arsenal and the decisions of Atkinson. All season the Blues had played against twelve men whilst their rivals had often played with twelve, but in the words of Humphrey Bogart, ‘maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your lives`.
Joe Hart – 8
Did nothing wrong in the 90 minutes.
Pablo Zabaleta – 8
A goal line clearance and some stalwart defending.
Vincent Kompany – 9
The best centre half in the Premier League by far.
Joleon Lescott – 8
Playing the best form of his career and didn’t put a foot wrong.
Gael Clichy – 8
Got forward on occasion but was stopped by a foul every time.
James Milner – 6.5
His passing today was wayward and didn’t seem to have the passion he played with earlier in the season.
Yaya Toure –
Almost had his leg amputated by an Arsenal player and went of early.
Gareth Barry – 7
His passing was ok but he couldn’t match the pace of the Arsenal players.
Samir Nasri – 6
Looked out of his depth today and overawed by the occasion.
Mario Balotelli – 1
Thinks he’s Messi, but what has he actually done for City? He has become a liability to the team and is clearly not a team player. Hart’s reaction to his sending off says it all. If he plays for City again I would be surprised. Morinho says he is unmanageable and I agree. Could cost Mancini his job.
Sergio Aguero – 6
Didn’t even have scraps to feed on today.
Pizarro – 6
Slotted in well and his passing looks good.
Too late to mark.
Too late to mark. But should have been on at half time.
Roberto Mancini – Once again his bizarre tactics have cost City. Bringing Tevez on with a few minutes to go was ridiculous. There are clearly issues in the team as the passion in certain players has disappeared. Whether it be the persistence in playing Balotelli or Tevezgate, something is not right. Before today I would have said keep with Mancini, but after today I think questions need to be asked. His indulgance in a player that is clearly not right in the head has cost the club and clearly affected the players.
Howard Webb, Lee Mason, Martin Atkinson. Three ref’s that have cost City their season. From the Chelsea game onwards City have played against twelve players. In depth analysis needs to be carried out by City as I have never in my thirty plus years supporting the club seen as many obviously anti-City decisions being made. Ferguscum said these things even out over a season. Bollocks mate, the ref’s have handed you the title this season. Let’s hope it’s your last.