The jostling for position behind Chelsea in the Premier League title race continues to elicit intense fascination. Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City are now all bunched on 17 points and all believe they can haul in the champions. It promises to be an epic chase.
After doubts and deficiencies in recent times, Arsenal appear to have matured into a well-balanced, confident force with a depth of resilience, goalscoring variety and talented personnel.
Arsenal's first victory in 10 attempts against the leading sides (Chelsea, United and City) was rooted in a string of accomplished individual displays from back to front. Even their oft-criticised 'keeper impressed, Lukasz Fabianski twice denying David Silva to help secure a first clean sheet away from home in the league since January.
In midfield, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri vied for man of the match, the Spaniard just collecting the bubbly for being the heart and brains of Arsenal's operations. But the Frenchman certainly maintained his exceptional form, gliding around, scoring and creating.
Up front, Marouane Chamakh, a study in selfless movement, constantly opened up room for others.
On a day of endless encouragement for Arsenal, their bench signalled a rich array of alternatives: Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott, Emmanuel Eboue, Kieran Gibbs and Nicklas Bendtner provided the outfield options. Abou Diaby was absent with an ankle knock while Robin van Persie has still to return. Wenger can replace quality with quality.
City's hopes of taking anything tangible from this fixture largely evaporated with Dedryk Boyata's early dismissal, but they can take heart from the spirit displayed by the 10 hungry men who remained. Until he felt a thigh muscle tighten, Carlos Tevez embodied City's work-rate. So did the excellent Silva, floating past challenges and showing remarkable stamina.
This was a day when Eastlands also remembered the past, paying an emotional tribute to Malcolm Allison. Eastlands stood as one, away enclosure and home, to give lengthy applause for the flamboyant manager. The placing of a Fedora hat on the City bench was a lovely detail.
Silva came close to scoring early on, reading Tevez's intentions, running on to his captain's low cross and flicking the ball goalwards. Fabianski saved well.
City's ambitions were badly tempered in the fifth minute, though. Fabregas' eye-of-the-needle pass released Chamakh, who was fouled by Boyata just before reaching the box. Referee Mark Clattenburg sent off Boyata as the last man, and for all City's howls of protest, it was hard to disagree.
The presence of the inexperienced Boyata alongside Vincent Kompany had been a surprise, particularly with Joleon Lescott on the bench. Manager Roberto Mancini insisted it was because Lescott started against Lech Poznan on Thursday, but so had Boyata.
Tackles continued to fly in. When Denilson caught Tevez, Clattenburg was excoriated by the City fans for producing only a yellow. Gareth Barry went through the back of Fabregas. Alex Song caught Silva.
Some football broke out, Nigel de Jong almost releasing Tevez with a perfect pass. Johan Djourou then headed over from Bacary Sagna's cross.
City were fighting hard yet there is a new maturity to Arsenal, a ruthlessness that has seen them destroy opposing defences. When Nasri collected Sagna's ball after 20 minutes, Barry failed to stick tightly to the Frenchman as he exchanged passes with Andrei Arshavin. Granted a yard of space by Barry, Nasri shot firmly past Joe Hart. "One nil to the Arsenal'' came the predictable chant from the away end. "One nil to the referee'' came the riposte from the City fans.
A goal down, a man down, City were far from down and out. Tevez, inevitably, sought to get City going and Arshavin had to race back to clear.
Micah Richards, brimming with muscular endeavour, charged forward, turned Djourou but shot wide. Concerned, Arsenal briefly stooped to illegal tactics. Fabregas followed through on De Jong. Song poleaxed Silva and was finally cautioned. Djourou clattered Tevez. The sight of Emmanuel Adebayor warming up further stoked the fire.
City remained vulnerable to Arsenal's rapier thrusts. When Sagna sent Fabregas running into the box six minutes before the break, Kompany leapt in rashly, knocking Fabregas over and gifting Arsenal a penalty. City's resolve was now demonstrated by Hart, who guessed Fabregas' intentions and dived left to save the spot-kick.
Still City menaced on the counter. Silva's quick feet took him deep into enemy territory until Fabianski saved. Adebayor arrived and headed over. Richards embarked on occasional storming runs.
But the force remained with Arsenal, who doubled their lead midway through the half after the ball had fizzed between Arshavin, Nasri, Fabregas and Chamakh. In attempting to clear, Wayne Bridge merely redirected the ball into the path of Song, who drilled it past Hart.
Mancini sent on Mario Balotelli, a feckless fan sent on a bottle, but nothing could perturb Arsenal. Two minutes from time, Nasri sent Bendtner through and the returning Dane finished coolly, making it all very tight in second place. (© Daily Telegraph, London)