Arsenal 1 Man City 3: Haaland, Grealish and De Bruyne fire champions top of Prem as wheels fall off Gunners’ challenge
IT has taken 18 months for Jack Grealish to produce a £100million moment but here it was.
Grealish – always the best turned-out in the parade ring but desperate to prove his no mere show pony – settled the the most important game of the season to date and sent Manchester City to the Premier League summit.
The expensive lawyers will decide precisely where City’s expensive financing came from but their club-record signing proved his worth with the clinching second goal here.
Kevin De Bruyne had opened the scoring with a masterpiece finish and Erling Haaland added the coup de grace with his 32nd goal of the season.
But after Bukayo Saka equalised from the penalty spot it was Grealish, finally showing more of his old Aston Villa form in recent weeks, who netted the effective winner.
Arsenal are level on points with the champions and have a game in hand but Mikel Arteta’s men have now taken one point from the last available nine.
It does not feel like just a wobble. City have more depth, more pedigree in going the distance and they are favourites for a fifth title in six years now.
Since being hit by a myriad of Premier League charges over alleged financial misdemeanours, City’s players seem to have been galvanised.
They won a frantic, often ill-tempered heavyweight clash by gritting their teeth and rolling up their sleeves before their superior quality showed.
Although a red-letter fixture, this was also a contest between two sides in indifferent form.
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Arsenal had failed to win back-to-back league games for the first time this season, getting mugged by Sean Dyche’s Everton and a dodgy VAR call in their draw against Brentford.
City, meanwhile, had lost their last three away games – and so naturally, Guardiola saw this as an opportunity to reprise the old 3-2-5 ‘W’ formation, which was big either side of the Second World War.
Was he over-thinking it? Or if you over-think your line-up in so many big games, are you actually just thinking at a regular rate, perhaps under-thinking it for some run-of-the-mill fixtures.
Either way, it seemed bold, bordering on weird.
Even weirder, when Arsenal were in possession, Bernardo Silva – no Stuart Pearce – was asked to drop in at left-back.
There, Silva repeatedly fouled Bukayo Saka while cheating a yellow card.
Arteta kept going berserk at this and the Emirates crowd unleashed the loudest shower of invective heard here since the ‘Wenger In – Wenger Out’ civil war.
The opening exchanges were anxious and scruffy.
Just before City scored, Eddie Nketiah fluffed a free header from Oleksandr Zinchenko’s cross.
Then the goal – an Ederson punt headed backwards by William Saliba, under pressure from Haaland, who had made it after a weekend injury scare.
Takehiro Tomiyasu duffed his back-pass to let in De Bruyne, a genius, who thought ‘I’ll just swing my left boot at this, caress it over Aaron Ramsdale and inside that tiny piece of goal I can see inside the near post’. Which he did.
Yes, it was a rank error from Arsenal’s Japanese full-back, preferred here to Ben White, but the vision and execution from De Bruyne were majestic.
He remains City’s best player and It is a wonder Guardiola didn’t start him at Tottenham, where City were beaten ten days earlier.
As City’s players cavorted in the corner, Arsenal’s all shook hands with one another – presumably Arteta’s latest left-field management technique.
Still, it seemed to work, and the Emirates – a venue transformed from teddy bear’s picnic to bearpit – was roaring.
Most of their ire was reserved for Ederson’s frequent time-wasting.
The Brazilian had just been booked for this offence when he conceded the penalty.
Nketiah’s angled shot was brilliantly cleared off the line by Ake, but as the Dutchman slid in, Ederson followed through to collide with Arsenal’s centre-forward.
Where was the keeper supposed to go? Ref Anthony Taylor didn’t care and pointed to the spot. Saka stepped up and sent Ederson the wrong way.
Bernardo, that unlikely hatchet man, was finally booked for his fifth foul on Saka.
But just before the break, from a Mahrez free-kick, Rodri’s tumbling header cannoned off Ake’s foot and onto the bar.
It had been frenetic and tetchy, two coaching masterminds presiding over mayhem.
Early in the second half, Arteta flicked the ball away from De Bruyne in his technical area and was barged by the Belgian in a spot of high-class handbags.
Then Haaland out-muscled Gabriel and was hauled down. Taylor pointed to the spot only for VAR David Coote to rule the Norwegian offside by the width of his ponytail.
Unlike the Brentford debacle, when Ivan Toney’s equaliser was incorrectly upheld, the boys at Stockley Park had switched on the offside lines.
City were on the front foot – De Bruyne was pumped, Haaland was bristling, Grealish was booked for dissent after failing to win a corner.
Everyone was shouting all the time – including the players. This wasn’t the ‘happy flowers’ team Guardiola had complained about.
Arsenal, without the injured Thomas Partey, were losing the midfield battle – no Partey, no party.
Gabriel gave the ball away to Bernardo, who opened up Arsenal with a pass to Haaland.
It went along the line from Ilkay Gundogan to Grealish, who steered a low shot inside the far corner, via a slight deflection from Tomiyasu which fooled Ramsdale.
They hauled for a penalty when Kyle Walker clashed with Leandro Trossard.
But then Haaland steered in the third after a Gundogan pass and a De Bruyne cut-back and City were home and hosed.
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