For once, Manchester City’s stadium lived up to the unkind nickname bestowed upon it by their jealous rivals. After a 100 day absence, the Premier League returned last night at the Empti-had Stadium, with Pep Guardiola still dominating Arsenal.
It was the Catalan’s seventh consecutive victory against a Gunners side now managed by close friend and former City assistant Mikel Arteta, for whom Brazilian defender David Luiz was against cast in the role of pantomime villain.
But familiar as the outcome may have been, there was more than a touch of poignancy about two of English football’s self-styled Big Six featuring in the main course after Aston Villa and Sheffield United had provided the hors d’oeuvres a couple of hours earlier.
It was, of course, Arteta contracting coronavirus in March that forced the postponement of this original fixture, the first of nearly 100 Premier League games that would be delayed as the pandemic wreaked its havoc across the country and well beyond.
Arteta’s friend and opposite number Guardiola can bear tragic testimony to the devastation of COVID-19, having lost his 82-year-old mother to the disease in April.
And as the 300 people inside the Etihad observed the pre-match minute’s silence to honour those lost to the virus, Guardiola could have been forgiven if his thoughts were elsewhere.
So much has happened in the 98 days since this original fixture was first cancelled, a point underlined by City and Arsenal players following the example set by the earlier game and taking a knee, in the anti-racism gesture that has become a powerful symbol of that movement.
Indeed, there were few similarities with “normal” football either on the field, or off it - from the temperature checks for those entering the stadium to the home players arriving in their individual cars kitted out in blue face masks and plastic gloves to the two teams coming onto the field separately and observing social distancing rules in their warm-ups.
Outside the stadium, the number of “spectators” could be counted on one hand - a couple of City fans ate in a neighbouring chip shop, decked out in full kit, before heading home; another stood, inexplicably but ably, playing a saxophone.
Inside the Etihad, the surroundings and protocols were no less bizarre. City’s main stand was occupied only by socially distanced media, substitutes and peripheral personnel, with other seating covered by club mosaics and banners.
A video screen behind one goal showed a live action mural of supporters watching from home, alongside a banner bearing the ironic slogan “We’re not really here,” an old catchphrase coined by City fans.
Credit the Premier League for avoiding gimmicks seen overseas such as cardboard cut-outs or mannequins being planted in seats but there was still no avoiding the sheer eeriness of the occasion, one accentuated by players’ squabbling, screams and berating of officials.
When Arsenal’s goalkeepers trotted out to warm up before kick-off, the only noise that could be heard was that of TV pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher applauding them onto the field in mock appreciation.
The game, after the 100-day wait by a league and television companies desperate for its return, finally began and, largely, did not disappoint.
There were two early injuries for Arsenal - Granit Xhaka twisting an ankle, Pablo Mari appearing to pull a hamstring - which underlined the fears expressed by both managers that three weeks of training will not be sufficient for Premier League players to survive this six-week mini-season.
Whether those injuries could be attributed to Arsenal’s strange decision not to fly to Manchester until 5pm, three hours before kick-off, they certainly undid a strong start from Arteta’s side.
The visitors, particularly through Eddie Nketiah’s pace, threatened on a couple of early occasions but, by the half-hour mark, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva were beginning to pull City’s strings in midfield.
Four times in the space of five minutes, City carved out four chances that, with pre-lockdown levels of sharpness, could have produced four goals.
Bernd Leno pushed away a Raheem Sterling shot, then made an even better low save to keep out Silva’s blast and was equally alert in sprinting out to close down Riyad Mahrez after he was played in on goal by a sublime De Bruyne pass.
Sterling might have ended his wait for a first goal in 2020 when another fantastic De Bruyne pass played him clear only for the England forward to lift a shot high and wide.
But there was no such generosity from the City striker in first half injury-time when David Luiz, brought on to replace Mari, badly mis-controlled that rarest of collector’s items, a mishit De Bruyne pass, and Sterling ruthlessly volleyed in from six yards.
Luiz’s introduction had coincided - or, perhaps, resulted in - City gaining the upper hand and there was an air of inevitability when the Brazilian hauled down Mahrez just five minutes into the second half, earning a red card and presenting De Bruyne with the penalty from which City doubled their lead.
Leno would be required to preserve his goal further, notably from De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, but there were concerns for Guardiola when keeper Ederson collided with teenage team mate Eric Garcia who was stretchered off by a posse of medics shrouded in PPE.
In the first of the 11 minutes of added time, it was left to City substitute Phil Foden to wrap up the evening with a shot into an empty net after fellow sub Sergio Aguero struck a post.
MAN CITY (4-3-3): Ederson 8; Walker 7, Garcia 7, Laporte 8 (Rodri 69, 6), Mendy 8; D Silva 7 (B Silva 65, 6), Gundogan 7, De Bruyne 9 (Fernandinho 69, 6); Mahrez 7 (Foden 65, 7), Jesus 7 (Aguero 79, 7), Sterling 8. Subs (not used) Carson, Zinchenko, Sane, Otamendi.
ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Leno 8; Bellerin 5, Mari 5 (David Luiz 23, 4), Müstafi 6, Tierney 7; Xhaka (Ceballos 8, 6), Guendouzi 7 (Maitland-Niles 67, 6); Nketiah 6 (Nelson 67, 6), Wilcock 6 (Lacazette 67, 6), Saka 6; Aubameyang 5. Subs (not used) Pepe, Martinez, Kolasinac, Martinelli.
Referee: A Taylor 5