Roberto Mancini imposed only one special restriction on his players as they arrived at their five-star hotel on the eve of Sunday's match. "It was forbidden to bring with them fireworks," he said, clearly with Mario Balotelli's recent exploits in mind. The Roman candles and Catherine wheels were to be saved for the game itself, an affair of whooshes and starbursts in which Manchester City beat Arsenal by the only goal, thus putting their recent troubles firmly behind them.
After making their exit from Europe's top competition, then losing to Chelsea in the Premier League and seeing their local rivals briefly o'erleap them in the table on Sunday afternoon, City responded by hauling themselves back into the top spot. They will defend it‚ along with their flawless home record this season‚ against Stoke City on Wednesday in an attempt to be No1 at Christmas for the first time, historians say, since 1929.
Mancini laughed when he heard that on Sunday night but in the City manager's response to a question about Manchester United there was a serious acknowledgment of the direction from which he expects the main threat to come. "United are a strong team," he said. "We can't think we can win the title without fighting against them." On Sunday, in a match they might easily not have won, they showed the strength of their resistance to the season's first real hint of adversity.
As has become customary, the match was preceded by yet another marvellous story about Balotelli, who was said to have been spotted in the centre of Manchester on Saturday, wearing a blue Father Christmas costume and handing out bank notes. His manager could neither confirm nor deny the rumour. "I don't know," he said. "With Mario it's possible."
Balotelli, whose commitment was the equal of that of any player in an unremittingly intense game, took the pitch in SuperMario guise and saved his biggest and best Roman candle for the 53rd minute. Making the most of a defensive realignment forced on Arsenal by the departure of Johan Djourou two minutes into the second half, he advanced on to Samir Nasri's pass into acres of untenanted space on the left of the visitors' penalty area.
Shuffling towards the covering Alex Song, he suddenly darted inside his opponent and hit a fierce low shot which Wojciech Szczesny could only parry to Sergio Agüero, whose header across goal was prodded in by David Silva.
The game might have had half a dozen goals but there was no shortage of entertainment for the 47,303 in the ground and the millions watching around the world, who saw two of England's top sides produce yet another of this season's apparently endless string of absolute crackers. No 8-2 or 6-1 or 3-5, maybe, but nevertheless a classic of aggressive attacking football from both sides, the score restricted to a single goal by magnificent defending, particularly from the home side, and heroic performances from both goalkeepers.
Mancini sent City out in a 4-4-2 formation, with Balotelli and Agüero in partnership up front while David Silva and Samir Nasri attempted to pull at the loose threads in Arsenal's much‑darned defence.
The absence of four full‑backs forced Arsène Wenger to select a defence consisting of four central defenders, with Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen on the flanks, and when the Swiss defender had to be withdrawn, the only available replacement was another centre‑back, the 19-year-old Ignasi Miquel.
The newcomer went to left‑back, Vermaelen moved into the middle, Laurent Koscielny‚ outstanding in the first period‚ was switched to right-back, and they were still sorting themselves out when Balotelli, Agüero and Silva combined to strike what turned out to be the fatal blow.
The thrilling saves were evenly distributed, Joe Hart's from Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Vermaelen matched by Szczesny's stops from Balotelli and Agüero (twice), and so were the grievances. City felt that Mikel Arteta should have been given a second yellow card for clipping Gareth Barry barely a minute after being cautioned for tripping Yaya Touré, with a quarter of an hour to go.
Van Persie's chip over Hart was ruled offside by the finest of decisions in the 56th minute and the Arsenal captain was adamant that Micah Richards had stopped Koscielny's cross with his arm in the penalty area in the 78th minute.
Nasri, facing his former team-mates, was the sponsors' man of the match but dispassionate observers would have put his neat display some way behind the contributions of Hart, Kompany and particularly Pablo Zabaleta. Invited to switch to left-back in the absence of Gaël Clichy, the Argentinian blotted out Theo Walcott so thoroughly that the removal of the Arsenal winger after 70 minutes constituted the least surprising substitution of the season. Walcott's ineffectiveness was almost equalled by that of Aaron Ramsey, the team's only other British player.
The raised fist with which Zabaleta greeted the final whistle symbolised the unyielding attitude brought to the match by the whole City team, who took any doubts that might have arisen in the past 10 days and ground them to dust. Now for Stoke.