Resurgent Arsenal take aim at City
If, by some chance, you had sidled up to my prostrate body at my local pub on Aug. 29, the darkest day in Arsenal history, and said that by Christmas, the Gunners would be playing Manchester City in a meaningful game, I would have thought that you were either drunk on fermented gasoline fumes or referring to Andrei Arshavin's Retirement Testimonial match.
Lest you forget -- and believe me, I have tried everything short of drinking domestic beer to wipe the stain of it from my mind -- that was the day when the Gunners were disemboweled 8-2 by Manchester United and fell to 17th place in the table. It was also the day when Shirley, the bartender at Kinsale Tavern, served me my full Irish breakfast with plastic utensils, although I still tried to impale myself on a slice of extra-crispy bacon. Shirley cackled with the fiendish delight of a Chelsea fan blissfully unaware that she'd get her 5-3 karmic payback barely six weeks later.
So please forgive me for being slightly giddy in advance of Arsenal's visit to the Etihad on Sunday. For one thing, the richest team in the free world -- thought by everyone (including me) to be utterly invincible only a week ago -- is a little poorer today, both financially and emotionally, after being bounced out of the Champions League and then beaten in the Prem for the first time all season in a mojo-, morale-, and money-sapping four-day stretch.
For another, Arsenal no longer resembles the bloody carcass that Arsene Wenger dragged from the slaughterhouse of Old Trafford. The Gunners have won seven of their past eight games, placed first in their Champions League group and now sit in a fourth-place tie on the right side of the EPL standings. Add their hunger to show the world (and their still fragile fans) that they are more than a lumbering 10-man extension of Robin Van Persie's scorching, record-breaking left foot, and all of the elements are in place for England's best team in red.
Gone are the Keystone Kops' stylings of a defense that triggered multiple waves of nausea and binge drinking among the faithful every time an opponent ventured over the midfield line. With the inspirational central defender, Thomas Vermaelen, back in fighting trim, his presence in the center of defense has provided stability and cover for a much improved Laurent Koscielny, while Wojciech Szczesny has proved that not all Arsenal keepers wear clown shoes. Now that the back line has settled, the Gunners' rear guard has conceded twice in their past five games.
In the midfield, Wenger's 11th-hour purchase from Everton of the quietly efficient (and relatively cheap) Mikel Arteta has given the Gunners both much needed experience and a Cesc-lite maestro with an impenetrable helmet of hair. The Jack Wilshire-shaped hole in attack may be tiny in size, but it's huge in significance, although Aaron Ramsey has tried manfully to fill it. More than anything, though, it is Gervinho's rapid acclimation to the Prem that has been the most pleasant surprise. Though still prone to brain freezes in and around the box, the Ivorian has contributed a team-leading five assists and helped compensate for the total nullity that Andrei "Hold it -- I'm still on the team?" Arshavin has become.
And there are few things left to say about RvP other than "Dear God, Please Keep His Glass Knees Away From Any Flying Studs and Deliver Him From Man City's Saudi Carpetbaggers In January."
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Not that the Sky Blues necessarily need the Dutchman. What with 49 goals in 15 Prem matches, and a second-string attack of Edin Dzeko, Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson warming the bench at the cost of a cool $100 million, Mancini enjoys an embarrassment of alternatives as Carlos Tevez continues to be an embarrassment. Such is life up north that this was the trio relegated to play in City's unconvincing 1-0 win over Arsenal in the Carling Cup three weeks ago, and even then they needed the brio of Sergio Aguero to breach the Gunners' impregnable back line of Ignasi Miquel, Johan Djourou and Sebastian "I just might be the worst defender in the history of the EPL" Squillaci in the 83rd minute. Do you begin to see why cautious optimism has become my unexpected calling card?
While the Carling Cup is hardly an accurate barometer of a first-team's strength, City fielded enough regular starters against Arsenal's reserves to embolden the Gunners to think that they can come away with at least a point on Sunday. Their belief is surely buttressed by the way City stumbled in the face of Chelsea's second-half assault this past Monday after the Sky Blues were reduced to 10 men. With consecutive bad results (did I mention that City was also eliminated from the Champions League?), will Mancini continue to favor a silkier David Silva style over last year's well-honed and reductive DeJongian thuggery?
With battles looming all over the pitch on Sunday, at least two could prove decisive to the manager's approach.
The Italian watched the physically imposing -- and marvelously reckless -- Emmanuel Frimpong basically stuff his former teammate Nasri into the back pocket of his Dench brand shorts until the little Gallic weasel screamed for mercy. After that Carling Cup game, Frim wrapped his meaty paw around Nasri's neck as they exchanged pleasantries at midfield. Nasri's response was typical Samir: He took a wild and suicidal swing at the young Ghanaian bulldog as the players entered the tunnel and then ran for his life. Should neither feature on Sunday, look for Alex Song and David Silva to reprise their respective roles, although that fight wouldn't last any longer than the Frimpong/Nasri bout.
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
The other tete-a-tete may well be internecine now that Micah Richards has become Mario Balotelli's latest sparring partner. Last season, Super Mario traded punches with Jerome Boateng and Vincent Kompany on the training ground, so clearly he likes a challenge. On Thursday, it was the just-returned-from-injury right-back's turn to grapple with the combustible Italian.
While Richards' supposed inability to play the ball to Mario's feet was the rumored spark for the brouhaha (has Mario never seen Micah play?), true insiders believe that Richards was angered by Balotelli crying "No! I don't want to play Arsenal! Don't make me go out there!" James Milner and Yaya Toure were forced into the unenviable position of holding back the defender with biceps big enough to shred phone books -- or Balotelli's faux-hawk.
More uncomfortable than any intrasquad tension is Mancini's brewing dilemma: He has repeatedly warned his prodigal striker that if he didn't curb his incendiary temper -- Balotelli has picked up three red cards so far this season -- he would be left out of "key games." Mancini lacked the stones to sit him for the pivotal Chelsea match after he skipped curfew late Saturday night, and I am guessing he is just as unlikely to leave him out of Sunday's lineup. While this makes perfect sense for now (you can't stick a guy like Balotelli on the bench because chances are he'll set it on fire), Mancini's hyper mercenary group will surely take notice of the double standard. By the time City kicks off, United could be sitting a point above them and any further stumbles could see the unraveling of both Mancini's team and plush scarf.
Then again, these are all problems that the M&M Boys (Mancini and Sheikh Mansour) paid handsomely for in building this hard-to-love, even harder-to-control squad that could probably win the Europa League with its third-string side while angling to end City's 44 year league title drought.
Dare I allow myself the thought of the Gunners once again becoming a title contender? Or will the rich miscreants at the Etihad regain their cutting edge just in time? If anything, let's gird ourselves for a blood-and-thunder affair in which red cards and studs-up talking points outnumber the goals. With three red cards in their two Prem meetings last season, and the quirky statistic that the home team in their past four games has failed to score, this sets up nicely for the Gunners, especially as St. Robin of Emirates is averaging more than a goal a game in his past 16 road trips. But if Arsenal should reprise its last debacle in Manchester, I hope Shirley remembers to serve me my breakfast without any bacon.
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."