Manchester City’s lingering title hopes all but disappeared after Mikel Arteta’s 87th minute strike secured a 1-0 victory for Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium here on Sunday that left Roberto Mancini’s side eight points adrift of leaders Manchester United with six games remaining.
Needing victory to match reigning Premier League champions United’s efforts in beating QPR earlier on Sunday, City were always second best and a miserable afternoon was capped by the dismissal of Mario Balotelli. The Italy forward was sent off in the 89th minute after collecting a second yellow card for a foul on Bacary Sagna although the player was fortunate to have avoided a straight red in the 20th minute for a horrible challenge on Alex Song.
Mancini’s handling of compatriot Balotelli will figure prominently in the inquest into City’s failure to sustain their title challenge.
And the striker — the subject of fresh Sunday newspaper reports about his private life – provided more evidence for those who believe his temperament makes him a liability with a reckless performance.
Balotelli somehow escaped punishment for the challenge on Song but with referee Martin Atkinson having failed to spot the incident, the way is now open for the Football Association to take retrospective action. That wasn’t the last time the striker attracted controversy in the first half and while he was eventually booked for a high challenge on Sagna, he could have been cautioned on at least two other occasions.
Balotelli’s behaviour summed up a painful match for Mancini, but for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger there was satisfaction as his side moved two points clear of north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the battle for third place.
Arteta produced an exceptional right-footed strike after dispossessing David Pizarro three minutes from time but the Gunners could have been well in control before then after striking the woodwork three times.
Arsenal repeatedly stretched City’s defence, particularly down the right hand side where Sagna and Theo Walcott tested their former team-mate Gael Clichy. But despite controlling the early part of the game, the Gunners were unable to translate their superiority into goals.
They came close in the 14th minute when Robin van Persie met Arteta’s corner with a powerful header that was heading into the goal before it struck the back of team-mate Thomas Vermaelen and deflected against the crossbar.
City had been disrupted by an early injury to key midfielder Yaya Toure, who was forced off after just 18 minutes with a knee problem sustained when he was fouled by Song.
Slowly, though, the visitors gained a foothold in the game and Balotelli should have done better when he fired a tame shot that was cleared to safety by Vermaelen.