THE title race that keeps on giving threw up another chaotic twist at the Etihad last night as Manchester City gifted Chelsea a three point and seven-goal swing in the space of 24 hours, courtesy of Arsenal goals from Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.
The two leading clubs in the Premier League meet in a fortnight at Stamford Bridge with advantage firmly in the court of Jose Mourinho’s side after their five-goal away demolition of Swansea was followed by Arsenal’s even more impressive dismantling of City and their vaunted home record.
Not since October 2010 — and a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Arsene Wenger — have City lost a home league game by more than a solitary goal and if ever there was a time to predict that the Arsenal manager would end his run of not having beaten Chelsea or either Manchester club in 17 attempts, this did not appear the day.
City carried with them an unbeaten league run dating back to West Ham in late October, 85 days ago, a sequence that catapulted them into the thick of what has the potential to be one of the closest title races in years. Events in their next league game could determine whether that is still the case but Mourinho will undoubtedly have drawn great encouragement from the manner in which Arsenal’s disciplined, counter-attacking performance exploited weaknesses in a City team that defended poorly and which, without Yaya Toure, looks devoid of pace, power or intelligence in midfield.
A further sobering thought as Toure continues international duty with the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations for up to a further month: City have not won a league game without him in their line-up since April. “I think the game at Stamford Bridge will be very important,” said City manager Manuel Pellegrini whose side could be eight points out of first place after his next fixture. “We must close the gap to two points. We will see what’s going to happen in that game but I think and hope we’re going to recover and play the way we have played so far this season.
“Yaya is a very important player although maybe at the beginning of the season, when we weren’t playing well, you were always saying Yaya must be left out of the team. But I always trusted him. I never use the excuse of not having a player and, if we play another game without Yaya, we can win.”
City captain Vincent Kompany was architect of his team’s undoing, needlessly connecting with Nacho Monreal after 22 minutes and presenting the Arsenal full-back with the opportunity to make the most out of the incident, winning a penalty decision that was just about correct.
Cazorla, in the midst of what would be an outstanding performance from the Arsenal playmaker, confidently beat Joe Hart. City adapted at the interval, bringing on Stevan Jovetic to partner Sergio Aguero in a more orthodox front two and, until the 66th minute, the tactic paid dividends with City carving out chances.
But the magnificent Cazorla put paid to hopes of a comeback with a free-kick that he delivered superbly into the City area where Giroud took advantage of Fernando’s appalling non-marking and steered an accurate header past Hart.
It was a stunning performance from Arsenal, the discipline and organisation — and defensive responsibility taken on by all players — something that has not been seen from a Wenger side for some time.
“The difference is, first of all we have injured players back who were out for a long time,” said Wenger by way of explanation. “And we know it is a very important period.
“The confidence of the team is high, some players are in very good form, and I believe as well that today when we scored the first goal it was much easier to control them.
He added: We have five months in front of us that are very important and games like this can help us do very well.”
For City, who jetted out to Abu Dhabi last night for warm weather training, it is the next two weeks — a home FA Cup tie with Middlesbrough and that visit to Chelsea — not the next five months that could determine their fate.
MAN CITY: Hart 5; Zabaleta 6, Kompany 5, Demichelis 5, Clichy 8; Fernandinho 5 (Lampard 63, 6), Fernando 4; Navas 5 (Dzeko 76, 6), Silva 6, Milner 5 (Jovetic 46, 6); Aguero 6.
Subs (not used): Sagna, Kolarov, Caballero, Mangala.
ARSENAL: Ospina 7; Bellerin 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 8, Monreal 7; Ramsey 8, Coquelin 8, Cazorla 10; Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Rosicky 65, 7), Ramsey 7 (Flamini 84), Sanchez 7 (Gibbs 83); Giroud 8.
Subs (not used): Szczesny, Ozil, Walcott, Chambers.
Referee: M Dean 6 (Wirral).