It was not supposed to unfold like this.
Arsenal and Manchester City played to a goalless stalemate in front of a capacity crowd on a grey London afternoon, with none of the high opera which the press had advertised for Adebayor, Touré, and Vieiras' returns to the club that gave them their fame.
This match was supposed to be a bit of Mahler. Instead we got some sedate string quartet by C.P.E. Bach. Both teams were meant to go for it, City to make their case for a Champions' League spot and Arsenal to bounce back after crushing defeats to take third. Arsenal did indeed threaten at times, but City looked less like the dynamic squad that battered Chelsea and more like...Bolton. City continually repelled Arsenal's probing around the edge of their penalty area, with Carlos Tevez the only player staying high up the pitch looking for a counterattack that never came.
It was bleak stuff.
City, from the off, looked dead set on playing for the counter. Bellamy and Tevez tried to combine a couple of times up the left, and Adam Johnson nearly caught up to a ball over the top on seven minutes, but by and large, Arsenal dominated the play in the opening stages. When Tevez did manage to dribble with menace, Silvestre did really well to contain him, keeping stride until putting in a perfect sliding tackle on the Argentinian.
Arsenal pressured City well as the first half wore on. Wayne Bridge came off with a dead leg on 27 minutes, Micah Richards his replacement as Arsenal won a succession of corners that came to nothing. Abou Diaby and Patrick Vieira clashed numerous times in midfield, grappling and wrestling, each winning battles here and there.
The first real chance fell to Samir Nasri on 40 minutes, unleashing a left footed blast that Shay Given knocked out of harm's way. Man City immediately launched a counter, with Vieira bursting through into the area (shades of the old Patty), only to be dispossessed in tremendous fashion by his former mate Sol Campbell. Van Persie had a good effort into the side netting following a Mike Dean non-call on Vieira, and the first movement drew to a close with little applause or fanfare.
The second half opened in much the same key as the first. Song looked to have a knee problem, but ran it off, thankfully. In the 52nd minute, Mancini introduced Adebayor for Vieira in an effort to hold on to the ball in Arsenal's half and generate something, anything; the Emirates let the big striker know that he hadn't escaped their attention. Whether his introduction sparked the game into life remained to be seen; Bellamy and Song squared up three minutes later, and for a moment it seemed that things might become unhinged. Play flowed end-to-end, City generating some threat around the edge of the Arsenal box that ultimately amounted to nothing. Rosicky launched a tame effort that Given collected at his feet.
Wenger brought on Bendtner and Eboué for Walcott and Rosicky in the 68th minute. Diaby collected the ball in the 70th, took three touches and launched a low laser towards Given's post which the Irishman turned away, separating his shoulder on the landing. It was a harsh end to his match and probably his season. Gunnar Nielsen of the Faroe Islands came on in his place.
The match continued to slog on, City stacking bodies behind the ball, Arsenal probing for any kind of opening behind the resolute back four. Eboué had ideas about this, bursting forward towards Kompany and winning a free kick as Pablo Zabaleta tugged his shirt and earned a yellow card.
Van Persie stood over the free kick, 21 yards out and slightly off-center, much as a wolf stands on a rock over a herd of sickly caribou. Rather than his usual flamethrower towards the far 90, however, the forward hit a changeup that slowly and harmlessly tailed away past the near post, a deceptive strike that sadly was not quite on the money.
Eight minutes of injury time loomed on the horizon, Given's shoulder problems the source of a lengthy delay, and City only dug a deeper moat as Arsenal possessed the match away. Diaby and Eboué were both much too casual with their final ball as injury time ticked away, and the match reached its inevitable conclusion. The points shared, both teams trudged off the pitch, former teammates exchanging handshakes and asking about the kids.
It was perhaps surprising that City did not come out with more attacking desire, since a win here seemed vital in their hopes of pulling away from Spurs, who earlier had lost at Old Trafford. Instead, Tevez and Adam Johnson were the only City players to average a position (just) across the halfway line until the introduction of Adebayor. City, on the afternoon, had two--TWO--successful passes into Arsenal's area, and about eight unsuccessful ones. They managed three shots, one on target from Bellamy, and that was really about it for them. Much credit should go to Silvestre and Campbell for their efforts in containing any kind of Tevez-led break; Bellamy provided a little more impetus going forward vs. Sagna, but by and large the Arsenal back five did their jobs quite well.
For Arsenal, the attacking intent was clearly there, but the final ball never came. Passes that nibbled the left and right edges of City's area found success; every effort to put the ball through in more threatening areas died. Crosses could not find an Arsenal player either before or after Bendtner's introduction. Sagna got forward much more than did Clichy, which led to Bellamy having space to operate, but Arsenal may have preferred that the opposite happen, Clichy bringing a little more to the table when he puts in a cross than his countryman across the pitch. Diaby also hung back a lot in the match, working alongside Song and clashing with Vieira rather than driving forward in attack.
The result means that Arsenal still need to win at Blackburn or home vs. Fulham to lock up third, a goal that they should be able to put on ice. To do so, they will need to figure out how to cope without Cesc Fabregas launching unthinkable passes; the talent is present, and they need to let it rip. As Van Persie eases back into form, hopefully he can provide the necessary gumption and edge. Otherwise we're all going to have to get out our cellos and viols and begin the final allegro with blank expressions.