City’s hopes of UCL qualification are out of their own hands following a 2-2 draw with Arsenal
In what was Manuel Pellegrini’s final game in charge at the Etihad Stadium, his side were unfortunate not to claim all three points following a much-improved performance against the Gunners.
The Chilean’s three-year reign will be best remembered for buccaneering, attractive football played on the front foot and, on a glorious spring afternoon in front of a vibrant, raucous crowd, his team’s start was in keeping with the tone of his tenure.
Following the disappointment of the UEFA Champions League exit in Madrid, City set out their stall from the get-go and took the lead with just seven minutes on the clock.
Aguero’s brilliant swivel and volley into the bottom corner saw him draw level with Jamie Vardy on 24 Premier League goals but the advantage would last only 60 seconds.
An unmarked Olivier Giroud levelled things up with a simple header from an Arsenal corner after nine minutes but City deservedly regained the lead five minutes into the second half when Kevin De Bruyne blasted home brilliantly from 20 yards.
Again, the lead didn’t last long – this time, Alexis Sanchez equalised following a sweeping move from Arsene Wenger’s men on 67 minutes to make it 2-2 which is how it stayed despite a late cavalry charge from the home side.
Manuel made two changes to his final Etihad XI from the one which started at the Bernabeu, bringing in Kelechi Iheanacho for successive Premier League starts for the first time in his career and swapping in Eliaquim Mangala for the injured Vincent Kompany.
Unlike last season’s meeting, Wenger matched the attacking outlook inferred by Pellegrini’s XI, lining up with Danny Welbeck, Alex Iwobi and Sanchez as the offensive trident behind Giroud, although he was without the services of chief architect Mesut Ozil.
Manchester United’s narrow Saturday win over Norwich meant that three points had to be gathered to keep full control of City’s top four destiny – however, they were facing off against a team who have, historically, been unruly guests.
The pre-match stats made for grim reading for the home side, with Arsenal having inflicted 23 Premier League defeats on their hosts, more than any other side, leaving City with a win percentage of just 16% against their North London rivals.
Pellegrini has masterminded seven more Premier League home wins in his tenure (W43, D5, L8) than anyone else in that time but would this be another to guide his team into next year’s Champions League?
The home supporters, sensing the scale of the occasion, brought the noise and the players responded, setting up camp in the Arsenal half in the early minutes, winning every 50/50 and advancing with force and velocity.
This early pressure reaped instant reward when Aguero moved within a goal of Harry Kane in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot, netting his 29th goal in all competitions after seven minutes.
It was one of Sergio’s very best of the season, too, a brilliant left-footed volley from the edge of the box after the Argentine ace reacted first to Fernandinho’s knock down.
That meant that Kun had scored in six successive Premier League matches he’d featured in for the first time in his City career.
The Blues were in complete control from the outset but their lead would last less than two minutes, following a moment of slapstick which, at least initially, went unpunished.
Gael Clichy and Joe Hart got their wires crossed when the left-back’s routine header back to the goalkeeper wrong-footed England’s no.1 and came back off the post and out of play.
From the resulting corner, Giroud rose unchallenged and his meaty Gallic forehead thumped the ball into the back of the net to make it 1-1.
The commitment and intensity of both teams could not be questioned in a blistering first period but clear goalscoring chances were at a premium, Aguero going closest when he beat Petr Cech to Fernando’s perfectly measured through ball before he was crowded out.
The second period began in the same relentless fashion and Fernandinho nearly restored City’s advantage three minutes after the restart when he broke from midfield and outpaced Koscielny but he couldn’t bring his strike from an acute angle under the crossbar.
That proved to be a warning shot, as two minutes later, City regained the lead with yet another strike from the very top drawer from one of the season’s most reliable performers.
De Bruyne drifted in from the left flank, outmuscled his marker and drilled the ball in at Cech’s near post with surgical precision for his 16th goal of a very impressive first year in Manchester.
The introduction of Theo Walcott asked new questions of a City back four who’d stood up to manfully to most of what the Gunners had thrown at it but this increase in pressure eventually told when Sanchez clinically finished off an intricate team move on 67 minutes.
Pellegrini responded by sending on Raheem Sterling for Iheanacho but it was Aguero who nearly put his side ahead for a third time after some sublime combination play with De Bruyne – his volley sadly flashing past the outside of the far post.
Wilfried Bony and Yaya Toure were introduced with 12 minutes remaining but City couldn’t find the breakthrough against an Arsenal side who hunkered deep inside in their own defensive third to cling on for a precious point.
Bony had City’s best chance of this late charge with three minutes left, hitting a stunning volley which beat Cech but not the crossbar.
Now how City could do with a favour from West Ham who play United in the final game at the Boleyn Ground on Tuesday night if they are to secure passage to Europe’s premier club competition for a sixth-successive season.