Silva shines as City take giant stride
Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0
The last time Manchester City were top of the football tree at Christmas, Wall Street had just crashed, Tintin and Popeye were setting off on their first adventures (not together) and a Bugatti had just won the inaugural Monte Carlo Grand Prix. Roberto Mancini's men are on the verge of making history.
They continue to make headlines. This was a victory rooted in a moment of match-winning opportunism by David Silva, Gareth Barry's assured performance in midfield, some athletic shot-stopping by Joe Hart and some typically resilient defending by Vincent Kompany, who simply refused to let Arsenal find any reward for their spirited late rally.
This was one of the most compelling games of the season, both sides contributing in equal measure. Adding to the entertainment was the post-match sight of a City official having to check with Mario Balotelli, the king of the unpredictable, whether it was true that he had dressed up in a blue Santa outfit and driven around Manchester dispensing cash.
Apparently, he hadn't, although there was no confirmation of whether Santa was driving around town dressed as Balotelli (mad hat, snood, ill-fitting bib etc). Balotelli certainly profited from an Arsenal gift here, exploiting unguarded space on the left to help create Silva's decisive touch eight minutes into the second half.
As the clock ticked down towards a damaging defeat, there was still much to admire in Arsenal's play, from Wojciech Szczesny's continued excellence in goal to the determination of leaders like Thomas Vermaelen and Robin van Persie. They were also denied what looked a clear penalty when Micah Richards handled.
Yet the brutal truth for Arsenal is that they lost, that they lie 12 points behind the leaders and that the flame of their title dream has probably been extinguished in the Etihad breeze. Arsene Wenger certainly said so. It is also hard to see the City machine, for all its stalling at Chelsea, dropping sufficient points to allow Arsenal back in. Wenger's side now need to focus on ensuring they retain a Champions League place.
In midfield, Jack Wilshere cannot return soon enough. Wenger reiterated his belief that the England youngster will be fit for selection in February, although he has lost Alex Song and Mikel Arteta to suspension for Wednesday's visit to Villa Park.
So assertive late on, Arsenal had appeared nervous in the opening stages. Power and determination are required to live with City and Arsenal were found wanting. Some powderpuff tackling allowed Kompany, Sergio Aguero and Silva briefly to advance unchecked.
Van Persie endured a strange start, even presenting the ball to Aguero, a combination City fans hope to see more of one day. "Van Persie is ours,'' they sang, taunting the visitors, "you're our feeder club, Van Persie is ours''.
Samir Nasri was mercilessly booed for the way he left the Emirates.
There were Arsenal old boys all over. Kolo Toure and Nasri started for City. So did Yaya Toure, who once wore the red shirt in a trial. David Platt was in the City dug-out. Brian Marwood and Patrick Vieira were in the smart seats.
Their former team were struggling early on. Mikel Arteta caught Balotelli. Kompany effortlessly dispossessed the alarmingly anonymous Theo Walcott. City were creating chances, some of them engineered by Barry.
Oft-criticised for his England displays, Barry has blossomed into an important player for Mancini. One of his deliveries released Pablo Zabaleta, whose inviting first-time cross was surprisingly squandered by Aguero. Still City pressed, Silva testing Szczesny.
Arsenal weathered the storm. Now it was Hart's turn to impress. Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Vermaelen were all denied. City hit back.
Richards lifted in a cross that Balotelli tamed brilliantly, bringing another good save from Szczesny.
However lively, the first half was merely a dress rehearsal for a pulsating second act. When Johan Djourou limped off with a groin injury two minutes into the second half, the Arsenal backline had to rejig. Vulnerability reigned during the reorganisation. Laurent Koscielny shuffled across to right-back but, revealing his centre-half instincts, got drawn inside when Nasri swept the ball through for Balotelli.
The Italian sped on, cutting into the area, slipping past Song, and unleashing a firm drive that Szczesny parried. Aguero leapt with Vermaelen, the ball squeezing across to Silva, who hooked the ball in. This was Poznan time, the fans celebrating the 150th Premier League goal under Mancini.
Even with the lead secured, City could not settle for the remaining 37 minutes. Arsenal refused to let them. Tension remained City's constant companion until the final whistle.
These are the periods when giant strides can be taken towards the title, when significant opponents are kept at bay. This meant so much to City. You could hear it in the urging of their fans. You could see it in the anxious body language of Mancini, patrolling the dug-out.
The game was too open for his liking. Arsenal were coming calling on the counter too frequently. Walcott's one contribution of note was a drive pushed over by the outstanding Hart, who then held a low effort from Van Persie. Still the game thundered between the areas, Zabaleta almost breaking a post.
Arsenal just would not go meekly into the icy night. Even though Mancini sent on James Milner to stiffen midfield, Arsenal still found gaps. Koscielny lifted in a cross that was handled by Richards. Phil Dowd waved play on, much to the consternation of Van Persie, who was close by.
Still Arsenal pushed and probed. Arteta kept dropping deep, collecting possession and attempting to launch moves. Vermaelen was now a major force at the other end, almost equalising with a majestic drive that Hart tipped over. Vermaelen then curled a shot just wide. But then came the final whistle. City should be top for Christmas. Getting there is one thing. They must now show staying power to make history. (© Daily Telegraph, London)