By Jonathan Birchall at Emirates Stadium
'You can't buy class' read the banner high above the visiting Manchester City fans at the Emirates.
The message from Arsenal's supporters, no doubt for the eyes of perceived mercenaries Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy, was to resonate far beyond the pair that swapped north London for the Etihad last summer.
From the fans with tears in their eyes to the Abu Dhabi owners with holes in their pockets, it was all too true to bare.
After all, on paper, be it pay-cheque or otherwise, the title should be Roberto Mancini's. Yet after a 1-0 defeat at the Emirates thanks to Mikel Arteta's outstanding 87th minute winner, City are now eight points behind in a title race that less than 40 days ago they led by five. A 13-point swing in favour of Manchester United to silence to noisy neighbours once, and seemingly for all.
No team has dominated in the same way that City have over this campaign, with Mancini's side scoring three or more in 17 of their 32 league games for 28 of which they were top of the table.
|HOW THE TITLE PENDULUM SWUNG UNITED'S WAY
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|2|| Manchester United
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In Vincent Kompany, they have the division's best defender, in David Silva, its most imperious, most dangerous midfielder and thanks to Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko, are the only side to have three players to have scored 10 league goals or more. Yet still they look to have choked.
Mancini spoke of a lack of experience amongst the ranks in his post-match press conference, admitting that in know-how at least, his side could not match United. "We need more experience and we need to change something," he said. "They have more experience than us so probably it [winning the league] is difficult."
Most would now err on the side of impossible. City's implosion has not been the catalyst behind United's run of 11 wins in 12, but rather the fallout from it. As the champions rampaged through their fixtures and towards the summit, the blue half of Manchester spent too long looking in the wing mirror, and not nearly enough at themselves.
|"The Emirates loss was indicative of their collapse. When the pressure was ramped up by United's win prior to kick off, City hid, with Nasri losing his way & Balotelli losing the plot."|
Such focus is cultivated, not bought and regardless of the hundreds of millions that have been left at the disposal of Mancini and previously Mark Hughes, the club's owners are fast learning that even the grandest displays of largesse are not enough. Mancini's players, robotic in their efficiency earlier in the season, have started to show their human side.
The loss at the Emirates was indicative of their collapse. When the pressure was ramped up by United's win over QPR prior to kick off, City hid, with Nasri losing his way and Balotelli losing the plot.
||Manchester City are 12/1 to win the Premier League with Paddy Power
Arsenal dominated from back to front and save for a 10-minute spell in which the impact of David Pizarro off the bench looked to revitalise the visitors, City played like a side burdened by a 44-year wait for a league title.
Struggling to come to terms with the enormity of the history they were on the brink of creating, Mancini's side have mirrored the United team that threw away the title to Leeds in 1991-92, when they looked to win their first championship in a quarter of a century and gave rise to the theory that a team must first lose a title before they can win one. It is unlikely that such conciliatory thoughts will provide comfort at the Etihad just yet.
When asked if City could yet catch Ferguson's side, Arsene Wenger, well versed in title battles with the Scot, said that it is difficult to stop the leaders when the "horse smells the stable". It was wisdom borne from experience.
For United, unlike City, taking the final straight in their stride is simply par for the course.