City unites just in time
Did you really think that just because Roberto Mancini's millionaire miscreants suffered their first Prem defeat last week that all their mojo would vaporize? Perhaps the fans of the chasing clubs hoped that the indignity of being relegated to the Manchester Europa League would cause David Silva to forget how to pass and shoot, Joe Hart to forget how to make saves or Mario Balotelli to forget how to glower at Mancini when he was subbed out before the end of the game?
If so, congratulations. You have something in common with that soon-to-be-French comic icon Monsieur David Beckham. It was Becks who proclaimed that City had "no chance" to win the league because United possesses more experienced players and the most puce-faced of managers. Oh, how the French media will love his trenchant analysis of Ligue 1 once he brings his MLS Cup-winning form to Paris Saint-Germain for a tres cool $18 million.
Beckham's clueless punditry aside (you'd think he'd be more in tune to the subtle machinations of the Prem, considering that his best friend is Gary "I may have been a rat-faced windbag as a player but now I'm the new Andy Gray" Neville), City, it turns out, is just fine. Flipping the old "1-0 to the Arsenal" on its ear, the league leader returned the Prem to its regularly scheduled programming after a brief interruption -- four hours to be precise -- during which United fans rejoiced at the prospect of overtaking their loathsome nouveau riche neighbors for the first time since Oct. 15.
"Hey, have you seen the table lately?" the United contingent at my watering hole bellowed throughout the first 53 pell-mell minutes of the deadlocked City-Arsenal game. Then Silva pounced on the rebound of a fierce Balotelli drive to make it 1-0 and the only sound you heard was the dejected sighs of some 30 United fans simultaneously holstering their league table-checking iPhones. City had passed the gut check, and I had the pleasure of watching a bevy of Red Devils slink into the gloaming, their tails tucked quietly between their Chicharito jerseys and their Wayne Rooney hairpieces.
Despite the narrow margin of victory -- and the fact that City allowed the Gunners to have more possession, a rarity at the Etihad -- the win was proof that Mancini had stared down his side's first intimations of adversity and buried them in the plot reserved for Carlos Tevez's Prem career. Knowing that United had vaulted over it into first place, City could have easily wilted in the face of a resurgent Arsenal and its own internecine ego battles. The cut-and-thrust of the first 45 minutes made for breathless entertainment as the surprisingly resilient Gunners stood in the middle of the ring trading punches with City. By halftime, only Theo Walcott looked like he had taken one too many shots to his reputation.
And yet, Arsene Wenger's boys couldn't keep City out forever, especially when the Sky Blues began the second half in such a frisky mood -- and by frisky mood I don't mean grappling with each other on the field. Even Balotelli resisted the urge to get his funk on when Mancini hauled him off in the 73rd minute. Granted, he didn't exactly radiate Christmas cheer toward his manager, but the Italian man-child also didn't go all "Cincinnati versus Xavier" on his manager, either.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Rather, it was Mancini who nearly combusted in the 63rd minute, when Samir Nasri overhit a pass to Balotelli, who was staring down a wide-open goal. The normally suave Italian had worked himself up into such a lather on the touchline that he shoved assistant coach David Platt for having the temerity to try to interrupt his frothing.
As much delight as I took in Mancini's verbal assault on the Gooner-deserting-for-double-his-salary swine, little Samir didn't play badly, although you felt the stadium announcer was indulging in a bit of Wenger-baiting mischief in proclaiming him Man of the Match. Certainly Vincent Kompany, Hart, Gareth Barry (who quietly did plenty of dirty work to neuter Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta in midfield) and Silva had more impressive games than the traitorous Frenchman.
For Arsenal, this was, as Wenger said in his prematch press conference, a chance to measure "how far we can go." On Sunday's evidence, it's safe to say that the Gunners can probably go far enough for a nice vacation, but they definitely won't make it all the way to Hawaii, if you know what I mean. They are now 12 points behind City, and though they memorably closed a similar gap to overtake United for the title in 1998, the last time I checked they no longer have a multitude of game-changers such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira to make such seismic comebacks look mundane.
Wait, maybe that's why Wenger talked this week of still considering a short-term loan for Henry in the January transfer window. Not that the Red Bulls captain qualifies anymore as a difference-maker, but perhaps his guile and pedigree would lessen the burden on Robin van Persie. After all, the flying Dutchman can't bail out the Gunners every single game, and against City he was effectively grounded by the twin shin bashers of Kompany and his old Gunners pal Kolo "Diet Pills" Toure. Not that an atypically muted performance could stop the City fans from gleefully taunting Arsenal with chants of "van Persie is ours," a reminder that the club's financial muscle had prized Nasri, Toure, Gael Clichy and Emmanuel Adebayor from the Emirates since Sheikh Mansour's checkbook arrived in Eastlands.
If it's any consolation to Wenger, City appears to have no interest in Walcott after another exasperating performance from the England winger, who time and again squandered his searing speed and trickery in a Charmin-soft matchup against ponderous right-back turned left-back Pablo Zabaleta. Walcott's ineptitude allowed City to counter with pace and precision, and only a string of acrobatic parries from Wojciech Szczesny and a handful of well-timed interventions from Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny kept City from running up the score. As improved as Koscielny has been over the past couple of months, it was his brain freeze that permitted Balotelli to sneak unmarked down the left and then skip inside Alex Song's air tackle to unleash the shot that the opportunistic Silva stabbed home on the rebound.
And so, City's victory not only restores its alpha dog Prem standing -- the Sky Blues remain two points ahead of the pesky, barnacle-like United, which refuses to go away -- but marks a remarkable run at the Etihad in which the Sky Blues won 26-of-28 despite never quite reaching the transcendent heights Sunday that have defined their streak.
As for Arsenal, its determined climb back to fourth may have fallen short but it can take comfort in its newfound mettle since its eight-ful last visit to Manchester. Still, moral victories don't make up the difference between Champions League qualification and Thursday night trips to Moldova. And if the Wenger's men should indeed stumble, well, I wouldn't be surprised if the Man City fans get their Christmas wish and end up stealing away a certain high-scoring Dutchman. On behalf of all Gooners, I hope that Dutchman turns out to be Rafael van der Vaart.
Yo-yo alert: Chelsea back in crisis!
Another weekend, another Prem learning experience for Andre Villas-Boas. Lately, it's been all about handling the vicissitudes of Fading Frank Lampard's emotional well-being or knowing which on-air pundit to attack for questioning his managerial philosophy. It goes to show that even though he's squatting on the touchline like a dog sizing up a hydrant, AVB always has to be on his toes.
But Saturday's lesson was particularly harsh, as the Portuguese Man of War failed to remember the most basic of tenets -- be wary of the "trap" game. With Chelsea coming off the twin jet streams of CL qualification and knocking City from the perch of the unbeaten and a pivotal derby match against Spurs looming for Thursday, Wigan was begging to be taken lightly. Perhaps it was Villas-Boas undefeated league jaunt with FC Porto last season that led the barely post-pubescent manager to get so very, very cute with his starting XI and subs.
While the hapless Latics probably don't require too much attention -- they miraculously escaped relegation last season with eight points from their final four games and lost eight straight this year between mid-September and November -- AVB's tactics made certain the Blues would step right into the steaming pile.
From the opening kickoff, everything about Chelsea suggested it believed its mere attendance at DFW Stadium should merit the three points. With Lampard and Raul Meireles clogging the middle like unwanted hair in your sink, Chelsea's pace was Evertonian. The last time the Blues visited Wigan, they cruised, 6-0. That's bad in tennis and worse in soccer, so AVB certainly rolled out a set of players who thought of this one as a freebie.
For starters, the manager chose not to play David Luiz in a game that cried out for pace, creativity and an unruly mane of curly hair. Then, perhaps in the giving spirit of the season, AVB bent to internal pressure to give the ghost of Chelsea past in the No. 8 shirt a chance to prove that he could still start in a league that didn't begin with the letters M-L-S. Lamp's Arshavin-esque, listless 90 minutes were so lacking in influence that the one bit of Chelsea inspiration happened while the midfielder was off the field getting treatment for a bloody lip. In the 59th minute, Ashley Cole launched a raking 50-yard cross-field pass for Daniel Sturridge, who cushioned it immaculately in flight, held off a defender and drilled the ball past Ali Al-Habsi -- a sublime goal that should have opened the floodgates.
Instead, AVB suddenly developed Scottish bloodlines and started making substitutions straight from the Book of McLeish. Seven minutes after the goal, off came the Spanish schemer, Juan Mata, for John Obi Mikel's reductive presence, and suddenly Wigan gained greater control as Roberto Martinez countered by throwing on two extra strikers with 20 minutes to play. Then, with only a single sub remaining (Oriol Romeu was off at halftime), AVB inexplicably took off Sturridge and, even more terrifyingly for anyone who had bet the over, let Florent Malouda onto the field.
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That the 88th minute equalizer was started by yet another ex-Chelsea starlet, Franco Di Santo, added a little seasoning to the pot that was already on the boil. Lampard was busy looking for his yesteryear and Branislav Ivanovic was flailing about like a fish on a trawler deck. And gimpy, masked man Petr Cech tipped over like a sectional sofa before spilling Hugo Rodallega's (my favorite Will Ferrell movie) toe poke straight into the path of Jordi Gomez, the one Wigan player in good enough form to claim a tap-in so simple that even Fernando Torres (left on the bench again, presumably to stay healthy ahead of the transfer window) could have converted. On second thought, the way his season has been going, Torres would have probably conjured up a way to blaze that sitter over the bar.
No doubt the hypersensitive AVB will feel aggrieved by the result, but the numbers suggest otherwise: Wigan had the greater share of possession (51-49); more shots on goal (14-11) and on target (6-2); more corners (7-5); and frankly, more to feel good about (two wins and two draws in its last five games). The most painful fact for Chelsea fans is that Wigan seems as likely to win the league as does Chelsea. I wonder how Roman Abramovich feels about that.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."