Nobody should question their nerve. Losing to Chelsea had been enough for Alan Hansen to talk on Match of the Day of a set of players that were going through their "blip". Roberto Mancini's team played as though affronted by the suggestion that they might be showing signs of strain. They did not reach their most exhilarating levels, Samir Nasri's man-of-the-match award seemed generous in the extreme and they found Arsenal difficult opponents but they still controlled large swaths of the match. Tuesday marks the point when they will be a year unbeaten at home, a run that incorporates 26 wins out of 28 matches and gives the Etihad Stadium legitimate credentials to be recognised as the most formidable stadium in the country. They have registered their first clean sheet in the league since 1 October and, in the process, they ensured that Manchester United's excursion to the top of the Premier League was only a brief one.
The last time they were in Manchester they sieved eight goals and the experience was chastening enough to harden the debate about whether the Arsène Wenger era gets the happy ending it deserves. Three months on this was another unhappy trip north but there was dignity in the defeat. Just because a team lose does not mean they played badly and, while Arsenal ultimately came up short, they were probably the best league team to come to the Etihad this season. They had togetherness, an order, the sense of a team that once again knows where it wants to be. They have lost twice now to City in three weeks, so there is a clear gulf between the sides. They are also relying too much on Robin van Persie's goals but equally they can reflect on how far they have come since that 8-2 embarrassment at Old Trafford and realise they are heading in the right direction. It was noticable that Wenger praised the performance. "We can take encouragement but what we need is encouragement and points," he said.
Roberto Mancini is entitled to be concerned about the amount of time Yaya Touré will be away for the Africa Cup of Nations but Gareth Barry is doing his best to show City are hardly short of solid central midfielders. Barry has become one of the club's unsung heroes and at times in his first two years in Manchester, when his performances have loitered around six out of 10, he has invited legitimate questions about his value to the team. But this season he has shifted a few of those questions. Barry does all the muck-and-nettles stuff associated with being a holding midfielder but he is not restricted to winning the ball and laying it off and his pass in the ninth minute to send Pablo Zabaleta clear on the left was one of the game's outstanding moments.
This should have been a day when Walcott reminded us how devastating his pace can be. Gaël Clichy's suspension meant he was facing Pablo Zabaleta, an accomplished full-back with caps for Argentina, but hardly known for his mobility and susceptible at times to fast, direct wingers. Yet the outstanding Zabaleta won the contest with an ease that will dismay Wenger. Walcott is still only 22 and, at that age, it is only normal there will be times when he is erratic and frustrating. Even so, it was disappointing to see him drifting to the edges of the game. He was a substitution waiting to happen and it was surprising he lasted to the 70th minute.
For City the most galling part of Mario Balotelli's latest bit of training-ground aggro was the way it was misconstrued in some quarters as a sign that they were fragile mentally in the wake of losing to Chelsea. For the record Balotelli's previous misdemeanours have all occurred when the previous matches ended in victory (this being his fourth incident of this type in a year). The lad, in other words, just likes the occasional barney. It can be exasperating, amusing and bewildering all at once but this is the weird and wacky world of Mario Balotelli and what really matters is whether he is contributing on the football pitch. It was his run and shot that led to David Silva's winner and, by Balotelli's standards, there were only brief complaints when he was substituted. Afterwards Mancini was asked about rumours that Balotelli, dressed in a Santa outfit, had spent Saturday night driving round Manchester giving money to homeless people. "With Mario, it's possible," he replied.