- Written by Shane Thomas
The Emirates Stadium gnashed and wailed in frustration as Arsenal were unable to find the goal to give them second place in the Premier League. Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini shook off criticism for his team's approach from Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas - which was gentle compared to the vituperate chanting from the home support - to ensure that City are yet to lose to any of their challengers for a top four finish this season.
With both David Silva and Mario Balotelli absent due to injury, and Edin Dzeko yet to make his signing from Wolfsburg official, Mancini made the conscious decision to try to keep a clean sheet and hit Arsenal on the break. He opted to position the Brazilian Jo and the industrious James Milner either side of Carlos Tevez, with the mercurial but flaky Adam Johnson left on the bench.
Arsenal kept the same XI that impressed recently against both Chelsea and Birmingham. Indeed, City's tactics were not too dissimilar to Chelsea's. But on that night, Arsenal played at a breakneck tempo and left Chelsea choking on their fumes. And it seemed to be their intention to do so again. They attacked from the off and almost took the lead three minutes in, with Robin Van Persie unable to reach Jack Wilshere's cross with the goal gaping. Joe Hart was then forced into saving from Wilshere a minute later and the tone of the match was set.
Thereafter City managed to plug most of the gaps, with strong displays from all of their back four. But Arsenal were determined to draw first blood, and with more luck they would have done so. Van Persie and Fabregas both struck Hart's right-hand post before half-time. They continued to probe at City's rearguard, but were playing far too narrow, making it easier for the team from Eastlands to put up a trojan-like wall to keep out the red-shirted hordes.
- Written by Shane Thomas
Arsenal came through a feisty and tetchy encounter to become only the fourth side to beat Birmingham at St Andrews since the Blues were promoted back to the Premier League last season.
Their 3-0 win means that the Gunners hold on to third spot in the league, two points behind both Manchester clubs. And with City arriving at the Emirates on Wednesday, Arsenal know a win will take them up to second.
They will probably have to be more fluent against the team from Eastlands than they were against Birmingham. Especially in the first-half, Arsenal struggled to inject any pace into their play, with their collective touch and final ball preventing them from making the most of any promising opportunities.
However, what Arsenal did have in abundance was a ferocious will to take maximum points after their late concession to Wigan in midweek. At times this resulted in them being too focused on playing at a fast physical tempo rather than their usual "tiki-taka" possession play. But in hindsight, this proved crucial as Birmingham had clearly not taken heed of their conduct in this fixture back in 2008. Referee Peter Walton failed to keep order as Arsenal had to deal with a succession of dangerous tackles, with Roger Johnson lucky to stay on the pitch after a studs-up, over-the-top challenge that scythed down Cesc Fabregas. So it was ironic that the free-kick that led to Arsenal's first goal was probably not a foul. Robin Van Persie went down under minimal contact from Scott Dann to raise the ire of the home support. This was exacerbated by Van Persie's free-kick being deflected into the net off the arm of Lee Bowyer.
The Dutchman had an eventful first-half as his handball in Arsenal's penalty area went unnoticed by Walton. Johnson also missed a sitter following Cameron Jerome's knock-down and ex-Arsenal midfielder Seb Larsson's free-kick was well saved by Lukazs Fabianski. Laurent Koscielny and the superb Johan Djourou managed to deal with the numerous long balls that came their way and marshalled Arsenal to half-time with thier lead intact.
As the second-half began the Gunners pressed home their advantage. They had earned the right to play their football after standing up to Birmingham's roughhouse tactics. Not only that but Birmingham's efforts against Man.Utd on Tuesday night seemed to be catching up with them while most of Arsene Wenger's XI looked fresh after being given a midweek rest. With the home side becoming increasingly enervated, Arsenal had more time and space in which to play. Within an hour the contest was over.
Arsenal had already given a warning shot after both Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri came close to scoring. Nasri finally doubled the lead after a decoy run from Fabregas gave the Frenchman enough space on the edge of the box to curl a delightful shot into the corner. The best was saved for last as Arsenal kept possession for what seemed like an age, Nasri and Fabregas fizzing the ball around the Birmingham rearguard as if it was under remote control. As Fabregas hit a low shot from a tight angle, it rebounded in off Johnson's knee. Some would deem him unlucky but you could also argue that it was football karma as he should never have still been on the pitch in the first place.
With the contest now over, Walton's abysmal match continued as Lee Bowyer - already on a yellow card - got away with stamping on Bacary Sagna, and then sending him into the advertising hoardings minutes later.
The eventual ease that Arsenal secured their victory should not be underestimated. While they were definitely on the favourable end of the referee's major decisions, let's not forget it was the complete opposite against Wigan. And Birmingham have turned St Andrews into something of a mid-table fortress in the past few months. Their style of play is designed to disrupt and irritate, much like a bluebottle at a picnic. Arsenal did what United, Chelsea, and Spurs have all failed to do and swatted the bluebottle aside.
Fabianski - 7, Sagna - 7, Djourou - 8, Koscielny - 7, Clichy - 7, Song - 7, Wilshere - 6, Fabregas - 7, Walcott - 6, van Persie - 6, Nasri - 7.