We’ll do it against Burnley. That’s the brief, unimpeachable sentence uttered by many thousands of lips as the crowd trooped out of the Circle following a footballing lesson by Arsenal that now finds City one place off the bottom, and the most in danger of Sunderland’s game in hand.
We’ll do it against Burnley. Won’t we?
We’ve been here before. In 2010 we had to play Burnley at home and they, as doomed to relegation then as they seem now, swatted us away to the tune of four goals, even allowing City to score first. That game was key for City, and the players on that occasion froze, confused and bewildered by the basic task that remained and the depressing season that had unfolded. And Iain Dowie was in charge. Both teams went down.
So now, once again, we find ourselves relying on us giving Burnley short shrift. Victory over them this weekend will guarantee nothing, of course. The maths haven’t become an issue yet, and we may even find ourselves needing to take something from either Spurs or Manchester United to be certain. There is also, of course, the small matter of our overall record against Burnley, which is dire. It wasn’t too long ago when they were the team we found it literally impossible to beat. In our promotion season of 2013 we put that right, but even so, neither we nor they can be relied upon to do the right thing.
But beyond all this inarticulate panic, we should remember that it was always going to come to this. After we failed to beat bottom half rivals like Leicester and Sunderland, after we let a side as unspeakably wretched as Newcastle destroy us, after we took matches against Stoke, West Brom and Swansea only semi-seriously, we all began to look at the run-in. There, amidst a compendium of the unwinnable against the impenetrable, was Burnley at home. The four-leaf clover. The shiny pound coin down the back of the sofa.
Then we went and beat Crystal Palace and Liverpool, suddenly thought we were ace again, and treated Arsenal with a fraction of heart that wasn’t even a half. Key players (two especially) disappeared again, the opposition offered us a thorough seeing-to, and now, in terms of form and confidence, it feels like we’re back to square one.
And next it’s Burnley. We’ll do it against Burnley. Won’t we?
Steve Bruce had Nikica Jelavić and David Meyler available after injury and suspension respectively – the return of the Croat was an unexpected delight – and put both on the bench. The starting XI, however, remained unchanged, and why not? Harper; Chester, Dawson, McShane; Elmohamady, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn, Brady; Aluko, N’Doye. Arsenal, irritatingly, picked a lot of very good footballers, as if they thought three points were somehow attainable, the mad fools.
The Gunners kicked off and promptly kept the ball for the first 90 seconds, with every outfield player getting a touch and the City rearguard backing off completely. It ended with Aaron Ramsey flicking a Nacho Monreal cross wide at the near post.
Soon afterwards, the visitors won a corner and from the second ball, Tom Huddlestone tried a nonchalant backheeled clearance in mid-air and sent it entirely the wrong way, but fortunately Steve Harper was alert enough to catch.
It started an unusual night for Huddlestone, whose renaissance has been so key to City’s own return to form in the last two games. He didn’t seem keen at all; the languid, lethargic, half-asleep version of a man who remains a preposterously gifted footballer on his day but is easy to expose for his lack of focus when the day isn’t his. He had a lousy night and, in a 3-5-2 where everything needed to go through him, this affected the whole side.
Contrast with Stephen Quinn, beside him in midfield and so often a forgotten man among City’s squad, whose comparative lack of artistry (though he is no slouch, nevertheless) never made him afraid to play the right passes, maintain space around himself to free the ball, and win the odd challenge. A further lesson in caring from a midfield position would be given to Huddlestone later in the game.
Quinn got in the way vigorously of a Santi Cazorla shot on the edge of the box – the thumping echo of the Irishman’s block could be heard above the speakers in the Malt Shovel – then Alexis Sanchez (what a player) improvised a fine one-two with Olivier Giroud to get a chance, but Harper managed to push out the shot and Michael Dawson cleared.
A little rare elegance with his heel and toe from Huddlestone freed Ahmed Elmohamady for the first time on the right, and he got a metre on Monreal before crossing for Quinn to head a few feet wide. It wasn’t much of a chance but it gave City some impetus, and on the opposite flank Robbie Brady soon joined in, crossing for Sone Aluko to woefully mistime, misdirect, mistreat a free header, as if his bonce was rhombus-shaped. It was City’s best chance of the half and while still 0-0, Aluko’s profligacy would soon prove ultra-costly.
Before all that, however, we got to the 19th minute. More people than ever joined in the ‘CITY TIL I DIE’ chants; a few more than before responded with booing. We will repeat a tweet that another of AN’s number sent last night: If you boo a City song, sung by City supporters, during a City game, you are not a City fan.
Those booing have a right to, of course. They also have a right to cheer when the team does well, or sing their own songs for the side (or for the owner, whose belligerence, arrogance, greed, folly, untruthfulness, hypocrisy and hostility they presumably just see as acceptable traits of a wacky old man as long as Theo Walcott is warming up in front of them). They do neither. They haven’t a clue. And it’ll be they who are the first to sod off if and when – worst case scenario – City are relegated to the Championship, Allam calls in his debt and starts to asset-strip, and Hull Tigers line up against MK Dons. The mushroom club continues to occupy precious seats at the Circle and their myopia, their inactivity, their stubbornness and their lack of overall care for the club beyond the identity of glamorous opponents is the cancer that is continuing to give the Allams some kind of hope, a sense of misguided purpose. We’d rather he went than them, but frankly, they can all go.
If the fact that Allam funded Huddlestone’s purchase is a component in the thinking of the pro-Allam congregation, then perhaps even their mesmerised eyes could see that the midfielder had become an expensive liability once again. Thinking about something else, he lost the ball weakly in midfield, forcing his mate Jake Livermore (himself having a shocker, more through discipline than footballing competency) to foul Sanchez just outside the box. Oh, look, Arsenal have a free kick with Cazorla behind it! Where do we remember that from? Still, it was Sanchez who took it, and this time we had Harper in goal, not Allan McGregor. The result was the same, mind; a deflection off Dawson’s head within the wall gave Harper little opportunity and Arsenal were in front. And there will be some attendees, the ones who sit on their hands all evening except when the true supporters sing about the very fabric of their club, who will consider Huddlestone’s desperate lotus-eating as worth it for seeing such a fine player score a goal. That’s not why we’re here, folks. It’s not ever why we’re here.
A goal down to Arsenal and not looking very bright for it.
Still, we’ll do it against Burnley. Won’t we?
City didn’t have time to regroup. Arsenal sensed the fear and lack of concentration among the home side and went straight for the second. Chillingly, they got it too. Cazorla played a fine ball at an angle for Aaron Ramsey to scamper towards on the edge of the box, and his shot spun wickedly off Brady’s last-ditch lunge and perfectly wrongfooted Harper, rooted to the spot as it sailed past his right hand.
Still, we’ll do it against Burnley. Won’t we?
Minds were cast back to Chelsea at home, where we were also at 0-2 quite swiftly but clawed it back to 2-2 at the break. We still lost the game, but it provided proper evidence that spirit and belief existed within the professionals in this team. And Arsenal were, well, a different sort of side to Chelsea. They are arguably as good in attack but haven’t even a quarter of Chelsea’s defensive nous and that’s why they’re going to finish second, ten points or more behind the newly-crowned champions. And if we can claw it back against an expert Chelsea rearguard, then maybe we can……oh hang on, it’s three now.
Huddlestone, again. Again, Huddlestone. Outnumbered in midfield, then complained he didn’t get a shout as Mesut Özil ran off with the ball, probably with a cackle and a twirl of his invisible moustache. He fed Ramsey who with real precision avoided Giroud’s run offside and instead found the late charge of Sanchez, who rounded Harper to score.
Oh bloody hell. This was now a problem. Losing to Arsenal is no disgrace. Being outplayed by Arsenal is no disgrace. But at 0-3 we were now below Leicester on goal difference and down a place, and ripe to be annihilated. Even a two goal deficit had us below Leicester on goals scored, but now there was a tiny bit of daylight. We were the ones who would suffer for Sunderland’s game in hand, unless we could at least put some respectability on the scoreline. The half time whistle sounded and, well, you know what you were thinking. You don’t need us to hammer it home.
It could have been three earlier – Harper saved well with a trailing glove after rushing out towards Sanchez, while Özil shot one straight at City’s busy veteran custodian – but the fact that it was three at all, at the break, was a real worry. Bruce responded by hooking Livermore, one of two evils in midfield (but Huddlestone didn’t look interested enough to get sent off), and put on Meyler. There was now two lots of industry, vigour and solicitude in the middle of the field either side of the indolent creator, and Arsenal did, for a while, have something to think about.
Meyler and Quinn were absolutely terrific in the second half. This needs to be said, it needs to be confirmed. Meyler gets a fair bit of stick when he gets it wrong and Quinn often just doesn’t get the time on the pitch to prove his worth, but their contribution to a City side that collectively bucked up its ideas was stellar and notable.
Aluko, out of sorts but never missing, fired one shot over the bar from distance before Ramsey nearly re-enacted his Wembley winner with a one-two inside the box and a stabbed shot towards Harper’s near post which, this time, landed not on the scoring side. It was eerily similar, but had he scored it, it would have genuinely felt undeserved. Arsenal, of course, could afford to sit back and take it easy but their natural attacking instincts meant that if the chance came they were still intending to take it.
City got back into it when Meyler made a battling run to the edge of the box and won the challenge with Laurent Koscielny that diverted the ball to Elmohamady on the flank. His diagonal curler was met with a firm downward header into the corner by Quinn, whose last Premier League goal was eight years ago. A deserved moment of personal achievement for him. Goal difference level again.
Of course, at 1-3, you start thinking “one more will make it interesting”. This was a two-fold mantra, as another goal would lift City back above Leicester again and perhaps, just perhaps, sow the odd doubtful seed in Arsenal’s collective, multi-national mind. Paul McShane marginally headed over another Elmohamady cross after staying up from a set-piece, before Bruce freed Brady up front by bringing on Andy Robertson for Aluko.
Koscielny and Meyler then contested an aerial duel which saw the French defender land on top of City’s heroic sub, who remained on the turf, writhing. The referee, Lee Mason, felt no need to either call a foul or check the validity of the injury, stopping the game a few seconds later when Dawson fouled sub Jack Wilshere on the edge of the City box. The sight of Meyler with an eye shut, blood all down one side of his face and (very quickly) a purple lump emerging just millimetres under the lower eyelid, brought about much questioning of the ref’s judgement. Even if it wasn’t a foul, it was certainly a reason to stop the game. A few City players had felt the force of Arsenal studs while on the floor during the match, and though this one was likely accidental, it still needed urgent attention. Meyler, his vision and balance unaffected, wiped the blood away on the touchline and resumed. His shiner now will be quite profound. His star now will have increased some more.
City were running out of ideas and so, with probably the goal difference as much in his thinking as anything, Bruce turned to Jelavić and switched the formation. Quinn came off to a deserved ovation, and a 4-4-2 was concocted. The Croat got little opportunity though, and in the closing stages only Arsenal looked like scoring again. Mercifully, they didn’t.
Harper beat out one shot from the overlapping Héctor Bellerín, before Wilshere’s follow up was blocked by James Chester’s hand. The appeals were brief as Sanchez looked set to put the third chance away, but hit the side netting. That was a big let-off; two big chances wasted and a penalty appeal surprisingly turned down (as the hoary cliché goes, you’ve seen them given).
Four minutes were added and fungus fraternity favourite Theo Walcott was introduced, nearly even scoring with his one chance when he lashed a Bellerín cross wide, then a final counter attack allowed Sanchez to draw Dawson in and make space for the shot, but he aimed it wide.
So, 1-3. Full time. Given the wretched first half performance and consequent fears at the break, this could have been a whole lot worse. Ambitiousness is good but beating Arsenal was never more than a dream, engineered by victory over a Liverpool side that is as out of sorts and directionless as it has been all season. Arsenal fancy second place, their players have Cup final berths to earn, so they weren’t going to be anything other than formidable, though it’s worth saying they didn’t do just enough, they played very well indeed and the final score isn’t shameful, and given how the scoring came about, it’s almost an escape from something a whole lot worse.
City do, though, have wounds still to lick and Bruce has much to ponder as he sits at his desk each day between now and Saturday and tries to plot a way of making sure that Premier League status is saved, salvaged, secured, against Burnley this weekend.
We’ll do it against Burnley.