Rob Parrish looks back on a pivotal day packed with controversy, late drama, great goals and fans' fury.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 23/01/12 1:17pm
The headlines may have read Manchester 2 North London 0, but there was so much more to discuss after a pivotal day in the Premier League title race which was overflowing with controversy, late drama, great goals, memorable matches and fans' fury.
Mario Balotelli may not have been wearing his 'Why Always Me?' T-Shirt on this occasion, but there is no doubt the spotlight is continually drawn to the Manchester City striker like a moth to a flame, with Tottenham the party who were left feeling badly burned.
Over at the Emirates Stadium, meanwhile, respected Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger felt the brunt of some supporters' rage, with shouts of 'You don't know what you're doing' tumbling down from the stands as the substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Andrey Arshavin played a part in Manchester United stealing all three points, while the dissenting reaction of captain Robin van Persie will not have gone unnoticed.
It demonstrates a significant power-shift in the Premier League when the meeting between reigning champions United and regular challengers Arsenal can be regarded as a sideshow to the main event of leaders Manchester City taking on the emerging force of Tottenham.
In terms of the title race, Sunday's showdown at the Etihad Stadium was clearly the more significant, and the reaction of the Spurs players at the final whistle to a dramatic 3-2 defeat, secured in the fifth minute of added time from the penalty spot, demonstrates the depth of their belief that they were still in the mix until perhaps that point.
The fact that it was Balotelli who stepped up to stroke home the winner from 12 yards having been felled by the previously impressive Ledley King will only rub further salt into the wounds of those from White Hart Lane, given the striker's earlier clash with Scott Parker, when the flailing boot of the Italy international caught the head of his prone opponent.
The ad infinitum replays of the incident will not make for welcome viewing for Roberto Mancini, with the Football Association awaiting referee Howard Webb's report before deciding whether to take any further action on a flashpoint which was not acted on at the time by the World Cup final official.
Harry Redknapp pulled no punches with his post-match interview, accusing Balotelli of deliberately stamping on Parker, with Sky Sports pundits Gary Neville and Graeme Souness - who knows a thing or two about underhand antics on the field - united in their condemnation of the talented but temperamental 21-year-old. Former referee Dermot Gallagher, however, insists it is '50-50' as to whether the FA will bring charges.
With Yaya and Kolo Toure away on Africa Cup of Nations duty, Carlos Tevez splitting his time between working on his golf swing and tossing one of his many coins to decide between Paris and Milan and captain Vincent Kompany still serving a four-match suspension, City will not want to see another key man ruled out of Mancini's plans.
Prior to Balotelli becoming the centre of attention, an already astonishing encounter had unfolded at the Etihad Stadium. An average first 45 minutes was forgotten as City surged into a two-goal lead courtesy of David Silva's surgical incision through the Spurs defence to set up Samir Nasri, before Joleon Lescott bundled the ball home at the far post with far less aesthetic grace. The latter may have lacked the artistry of the former, but they counted for the same.
Despite City's Premier League home record prior to Sunday's meeting showing a perfect 10, Spurs were unbowed and reduced the arrears through Jermain Defoe following another Stefan Savic blunder. Key defender Kompany cannot return soon enough. Gareth Bale then demonstrated why he is being mentioned as a £150million target for City with a breathtaking first-time finish beyond Joe Hart which left the England international grasping at thin air.
Spurs could even have won the match, with Defoe agonisingly close to converting Bale's low cross, only to see the ball whistle inches wide of the far post as the striker took evasive action to avoid a painful collision with the upright. Such are the margins between success and failure and Redknapp's men now face what would appear to be an insurmountable eight-point deficit to the leaders.
Over at the Emirates Stadium, news that their bitter rivals had snatched victory at the death seemed to inspire Manchester United, with Sir Alex Ferguson's side keeping pace at the summit courtesy of a 2-1 success secured, if some Arsenal fans are to be believed, by the blunders of Wenger and Arshavin, rather than the skill of Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck.
It was certainly a surprise to see Oxlade-Chamberlain being hooked after an impressive full Premier League debut and shortly after setting up Van Persie for a superb equaliser on the counter-attack to cancel out Valencia's first-half opener, with the Gunners captain showing open frustration and astonishment, while many in the crowd moved swiftly away from the 'In Arsene we Trust' camp.
Arshavin hardly covered himself in glory with a limp attempt to prevent Valencia cutting inside him before setting up Welbeck to drill home, but as Wenger pointed out, he was bringing on the captain of the Russia national team for a raw teenager. Unfortunately, what looks good on paper may not always work in practice.
The Frenchman admitted it may have been a mistake after the match, but deserves more respect from Gunners fans who, in their ever-increasing thirst for silverware, seem all too quick to forget the dynasty which has been built. There are probably around 86 other clubs in England who would happily trade places.
It should also not be overlooked that Van Persie was guilty of a glaring miss when he blazed wide of the target with the goal at his mercy. An incident which was just as pivotal to the outcome of the contest and proof, not that it should be required, that even the very best can be fallible at times.
Victory for the two Manchester heavyweights on Sunday means they will now be slugging it out over the final furlongs for glory in the title race, while in the wake of defeats for the North London duo, Tottenham have significantly greater reasons to be cheerful, particularly as they maintained their 10-point cushion over their local rivals, who look likely to pose the most significant threat to their dreams of a return to the UEFA Champions League. The remainder of the season will make for interesting viewing.