City, United continue to set the pace

December, 18, 2011
12/18/11
2:00
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Robin van Persie
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesCity defeated Arsenal 1-0 to go back to the top of the table.

Manchester City came into Sunday's tilt against Arsenal in a slightly unfamiliar position at No. 2 in the table, after Manchester United defeated QPR 2-0 earlier in the day. But if there were any doubts about City's strength after losing to Chelsea on Monday, the Sky Blues put them to rest with a well-rounded performance of attack and defense, defeating the Gunners 1-0 in one of the season's most rousing matches of football.

The game's only goal came in the 53rd minute, when former Arsenal player Samir Nasri crossed the halfway line under a chorus of boos from the away fans and played a brilliant through ball to Mario Balotelli down the left side. When Alex Song tried to close him down, Balotelli easily evaded his marker by moving toward his right. The Italian took a shot that Wojciech Szczesny blocked, the ball popping up. While Sergio Aguero mishit his header, David Silva made no mistake by slotting the ball home.

The goal was coming, as City had many chances throughout the match. But it also must be said that the Gunners -- playing without a true defensive fullback -- were scrappy and competitive. At times, during waves of City pressure, Arsene Wenger's defenders looked like a bunch of Whac-A-Moles as they launched themselves into the air to head the danger away. There were wobbly moments, and the typical Arsenal ineptitude on high balls, like when Per Mertesacker failed to challenge Balotelli for a high ball in the 23rd minute, only for Szczesny to make a brilliant save when Balotelli pivoted and shot toward the near post.

But Arsenal pushed the league leader to the limit, and in the dying minutes it was one of its central defenders, Thomas Vermaelen, who launched two shots that forced Joe Hart into action, the first off a free kick that Hart parried over the crossbar and the second a curler just wide of the post that left the prostrate keeper looking mightily relieved.

The victory not only allowed City to go back to the top of the table by two points, it also improved the club's ridiculous home record: unbeaten in its past 26 matches in all competitions, with only Fulham and Napoli fortunate enough to earn draws. The last team to defeat the Sky Blues at Etihad Stadium was Everton on Dec. 20, 2010. Another water-cooler stat: Silva's goal was the team's 50th of the season, from 16 matches -- making Mancini's men the quickest team to reach that mark.

Yet Arsenal deserves praise for its highly charged performance given the thinness of its squad. Gervinho looked lively down the left side, and for a team that has the worst defensive record away from home, conceding an average of 2.57 goals coming into this match, holding its more powerful and pacy opponent to one goal is impressive. Less effective was Theo Walcott, who could have been dubbed the Invisible Man for his lack of impact on the game. To be fair, he had to help out on defense a tad more, but Walcott had few important touches in the game (the first coming in the 54th minute, when he took a shot on goal and the second a cross to Robin van Persie in the 67th minute, for which the Dutchman was ruled offside) as Pablo Zabaleta kept the Englishman in his back pocket. Zabaleta also had a chance to put the game away when he blasted a ball against the post in the 65th minute.

Overall, City's pace and power proved too much for the Gunners, as the Sky Blues showed the kind of gritty character that wins titles. But there's plenty of season left, and they will be looking over their shoulder at their cross-town rival.

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Wayne Rooney
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty ImagesWayne Rooney was brilliant against QPR, scoring the first goal with a headed ball inside the first minute.

United's impressive display

Earlier in the day away at QPR -- a fixture that tripped up Chelsea earlier this season -- Sir Alex Ferguson's side put in its best performance since The Match That Shall Not Be Named. Wayne Rooney, in particular, was brilliant in his familiar playmaker role -- his one-touch flick-ons, through balls and nutmegs dazzled. He also opened the game's scoring in the 53rd second when he passed the ball off to Antonio Valencia and sprinted to the far post. Valencia launched a deep cross and Rooney -- or, perhaps more accurately, Rooney's hair plugs -- expertly directed the ball into the near post.

United continued to dominate and create chances, and while it only put one more past the keeper, we can at least be spared the nonsense from some pundits that it's bad luck to score early in a match. Nani continued his sharp play and Michael Carrick even put in a strong shift. Once again, he partnered with Phil Jones in the center of the pitch, and with the Red Devils thin at that position, Carrick comported himself well. There were still a few too many back passes and square balls to make the commentators' effusive praise of Carrick somewhat strange -- above average is the new gold standard for United's midfield, it seems -- but Carrick had a terrific give-and-go with Rooney in the 14th minute that resulted in a corner, helped shield the defense quite well, and maintained possession of the ball.

It was also Carrick who ultimately put the game beyond QPR's reach. In the 56th minute, he intercepted Joey Barton's wayward pass, and channeling his inner Phil Jones, sped between two defenders on the left side and then shot low past QPR keeper Radek Cerny on the near post. Cerny should have done much better in getting down to stop the ball, which wasn't exactly hit with blazing speed.

Still, this was United's best showing in many moons. The Red Devils could have ended with many more goals, and what was most impressive is the pace at which they played. Not content to sit on the ball, they moved it around the pitch quickly, often with only one or two touches. It's that style of play that jumped-started Ferguson's side at the beginning of the season, and it's that style of play that will keep it within shouting distance of the Sky Blues.

For all of United's setbacks this season, it's in a strong position, believe it or not. Coming into the match, only twice under Ferguson have the Red Devils had more points after 15 games (in 1993-94 and 2006-07). For United, of course, the main problem is that another team from Manchester is gobbling up points at an even faster clip than Pac-Man.

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