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Premier League review: theatrics at the top

Despite all the build-up, all the drama and all of the controversy, Manchester City remain three points clear of United.

Danny Welbeck celebrates his winner
Danny Welbeck celebrates his winner
Image: PA

SO, AFTER ALL the build-up and a fair degree of drama, it wasn’t that decisive a day at the top of the table: Manchester City remain three points clear of United.

And there were also a fair few parallels between their fixtures. Both Manchester sides took the lead after dull first halves only for the North London clubs to unexpectedly equalise, before the top two re-asserted their superiority late on. But there was also some controversy over who was on the pitch for both winning goals.

Mario Balotelli probably should have been red-carded for an earlier stamp on Scott Parker before hitting home the last-minute penalty, while Arsenal fans’ anger at Arsene Wenger’s needless substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was apparently justified when his replacement, Andriy Arshavin, lazily failed to stop Antonio Valencia setting up Danny Welbeck’s injury.

Despite the result, though, the long-term future looks a lot more promising for Tottenham than Arsenal. Harry Redknapp’s side showed a lot of character to come from two behind in a whirlwind nine minutes at Eastlands and might have even won the game.

After an insipid first half in which both teams showed the other too much respect, Samir Nasri opened the scoring with an emphatic strike before Joleon Lescott bundled in a corner.

That appeared that only for Jermain Defoe to capitalise on a Stefan Savic error and Gareth Bale to then curl in an exceptional equaliser from the edge of the box. Bale, however, could have helped settle the game had he not delayed his cross for Defoe.

Despite the entertainment and exhilarating chaos of that period, in truth there were only 11 remarkable minutes out of 90 largely dull ones. But the last 60 seconds proved the most amazing of all. Substitute Balotelli – who had earlier stamped on Parker in a disgraceful episode – suddenly found himself through on goal only to be felled by Ledley King.

Whatever of Balotelli’s character, personality and theatrics, however, he showed admirable nerve to step up and coolly slot home the penalty.

There wasn’t quite the same amount of drama at the Emirates as, other than period after half-time, United largely bossed the game. Having contained Arsenal and controlled the first half, they took the lead in its last second as Ryan Giggs crossed for Antonio Valencia to score a flying header.

Arsenal came out for the second half clearly emboldened, however. And, after a series of good chances – including one of the misses of the season from Robin van Persie of all people – they claimed a superb equaliser in a sweeping move that started in the Arsenal box and ended in the United net.

First, Laurent Koscielny expertly dispossessed Rafael for Arsenal to immediately work the ball into the area vacated by the right-back. At the end of a flowing move, Van Persie atoned for his earlier by missing by striking in off the post.

Young Guns

It was the brilliant young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who had helped create the goal with a clever and excellently executed initial ball for Van Persie – with its quality only matching that of the young winger’s first Premier League start overall. Shortly after the goal, however, Wenger inexplicably took off Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andriy Arshavin. And, on the 79th minute, Antonio Valencia easily evaded the Russian to eventually set up Welbeck to plunder the winner.

As to what the games actually mean in the context of the season, probably not too much in terms of the title race. Many spoke about how this might eventually be seen as the day City won the title after the late drama, but that seemed to lack its same impact once United also got the win over Arsenal.

The complexion stayed the same at the top. And, even had Balotelli not scored the penalty City would have been just about ahead. For their parts, however, Balotelli indicated an important ability to handle pressure while United responded very well to the changing situation after Arsenal had equalised: both facts are encouraging in the long-run.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Ledley King is left dejected after conceding their third goal scored by Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli who celebrates in the background with team-mates. (Pic: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport)

Tottenham, meanwhile, could take real heart despite the result as they competed with City every step of the way and even surpassed them at times. In that, it was an impressive – and important – statement

For Arsenal, the doubts are growing. As is the justification for fans’ complaints over Wenger. Indeed, the Oxlade-Chamberlain decision appeared to distill so many of the arguments about the manager. Wenger apparently took off Oxlade-Chamberlain because of his backroom team’s fitness stats and to protect the player from injury in the long-term. As with spending money and so many other factors with Wenger, however, this attempt to look at the bigger picture only effected an even bigger picture.

As it stands, it seems Arsenal will have to win the Champions League if they are to stay in the competition next season. And that is hardly likely on this form or this performance.

As it happened: Arsenal v Manchester United

Keane explains his Molineux poker face

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