Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero look back on a classic clash with the Gunners from December 2013…
Premier League leaders Arsenal arrived at the Etihad six points clear of City and looking to put further daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
While City’s title defence had been unsuccessful the season before, it had been a decade since the Gunners had won the league, but there was a growing feeling that Arsene Wenger’s men might end their wait this campaign with nobody – including defending champions Manchester United who were 13 points behind the North London side – emerging as outstanding candidates.
City were holding their own under new boss Manuel Pellegrini and had produced several scintillating displays including a 7-0 win over Norwich, 6-0 win over Spurs and thrashed United 4-1.
With a sell-out Etihad hoping the Blues could add to their tally of 29 goals from seven home games against the meanest defence in the division, the scene was set for a modern classic.
City's all-time record goal-scorer Sergio Aguero, speaking from his home in Argentina, remembers the game well.
“Those important battles always stay with you,” said Aguero.
“It was Manuel's first season as manager, after Mancini left. The Premier League was different back then, but it was also a time of major shifts – Sir Alex Ferguson had just left United, and, after our 2012 title, we were now seen as genuine challengers.
“Chelsea were still in the hunt and Arsenal were coming towards the end of the Wenger era.
“Arsenal arrived at the top of the table, and it was a game we had to win.
"Our team had brought in some solid reinforcements – Fernandinho's signing in particular was a big thing for us, with Martin Demichelis at the back, and Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas in attack."
Fernandinho had indeed settled in to City life like the proverbial duck to water.
The classy Brazilian brought an additional touch of class – and authority – to City’s midfield and had quickly become a big crowd favourite.
Though not a prolific scorer for Shakhtar Donetsk, he averaged around one goal in every six games, yet he had played 20 games for City by the time this match kicked off and was yet to find the back of the net – though that was all about to change…
Now back in Brazil with Atletico Paranaense, our former skipper recalls the 2013 meeting with Arsenal with great fondness.
“Certainly, we felt it was a game we needed to win at all costs,” said Ferna
"At that time, the six-point gap they had was too big and we didn't want to let it grow. So the preparation for this game was spectacular..."
“We knew that Arsenal were a very good team technically and tactically, but it was quite difficult to play without the ball, so the plan was to intensify actions to cause the greatest possible discomfort to their team - the fewer spaces we gave them the better because we knew, they would cause us damage.
“But it was an excellent strategy elaborated by Pellegrini and in the end the time played very well, he wanted us to be aggressive in the second ball, and the result was fantastic.”
Having taken 34 from a possible 39 points from their previous 13 league games, Arsenal had also only shipped seven goals during that run.
With those stats in mind, few could have predicted what was to come on a magical afternoon at the Etihad.
In a cagey opening, it was City who drew first blood on 14 minutes, with Samir Nasri’s corner flicked on by Demichelis and superbly volleyed home by Aguero at the back post.
"You don't forget a sweet volley like that..."
“You can't forget a sweet volley like that, almost on the edge of the six-yard box,” smiled Aguero.
“Samir sent over the corner, Demichelis glanced it on from the near post I saw the ball arriving a tad too high, so I was only able to move my body a bit further to the back to hit it harder.
“Luckily, the ball picked up a lot of speed, at just the right height to avoid Wojciech Szczęsny's grasp, and so I was able to net the opener. Volleys can be like that – you either score a beauty of a goal, or you send the ball flying into orbit!”
City held that 1-0 lead until just past the half-hour mark, when an Arsenal counter-attack ended with Mesut Ozil picking out Theo Walcott on the edge of the City box and his low shot wrong-footed an unsighted Costel Pantilimon and agonisingly rolled into the bottom right corner to make it 1-1.
But City thundered back and, within eight minutes, were 2-1 up with another goal heavily influenced by Argentina as Pablo Zabaleta’s low cross was slid home by Alvaro Negredo – a lead the Blues took into the break.
“It was very open – the kind of game people like,” said Aguero.
“I think the style of both trainers lent itself to that. They're both offensive-minded – they want their teams to be on the prowl constantly. That makes for back-and-forth matches. In that sense, Manuel is a manager with a clear vision. He believed in us, and that gave us confidence. He could think about how to get us ahead in the match, while striking a good defensive balance.
“Our centre-back duo was a great combination – Vincent and Demichelis – with Zabaleta and Clichy as wing-backs. We had great potential in our midfield with Yaya, Nasri, and David Silva, as well as great strikers! It was common for us to get the advantage in these sort of games – just like that match.”
Five minutes after the restart, City had a bittersweet 60 seconds as first, Aguero limped off with a muscle injury. With 19 goals in all competitions, his return to top form and the prolific first season for Negredo was a key factor in the Blues’ title push.
“That's something I can't recall in full,” said Aguero. “I do remember my calf hurting, five minutes into the second half, and that was my game over.”
Within seconds, however, City had increased the lead to 3-1 and it was a beauty from Fernandinho that did the damage, curling home from 20 yards to give the keeper no chance and finally open his account for the Blues.
“I remember I was already celebrating before the ball itself touched the net because I saw my shot going right past the goalkeeper - it was a big celebration and one of the reasons why that game is marked in my memory,” said Ferna.
But the Gunners weren’t finished and when Walcott’s excellent second of the afternoon made it 3-2, there was more work for City to do with just over an hour played.
Three minutes later, the City fans were on their feet again as David Silva expertly turned Jesus Navas’ low cross high into the top left-hand corner to make it 4-2 as this pulsating contest between two Premier League heavyweights upped the ante.
“I remember the match was constantly changing,” said Aguero. “We thought we had it in the bag, and then Walcott scored again, but after David’s goal, we had that two-goal cushion again. In those type of matches, with the top contenders of the league facing off, it's tough to make a goal difference so large.
“However, we were able to really lay down a marker that day and the support of our fans at the Etihad was fantastic. I remember Mikel Arteta was on the bench for Arsenal that match – and now he's their manager!”
Six goals scored already, that surely was the end of the scoring - but there were to be three more goals in a crazy final few minutes.
First, Fernandinho wrapped up the victory with a delightful fifth as he showed quick feet, exchanged passes with Nasri and then dinked it over Szczęsny to make it 5-2.
The Per Mertesacker turned home Bacary Sagna’s cross four minutes into added time to reduce the deficit to 5-3 during a stirring closing spell by the visitors - but James Milner’s burst into the box and the opposite end of the pitch a minute later saw him pulled down by Szczęsnyand the referee pointed to the spot.
Fernandinho was keen to complete his hat-trick, but it was Yaya Toure who rolled the ball coolly home to make it 6-3 moments before the final whistle blew.
“The two halves were technically excellent, so the game was very open to the quality of the players on the field," recalled Ferna.
“I think that was one of the reasons there were 34 shots on goal in total that day!
“Memories like that make me happy; my first two goals in a City shirt, in a special game, against a great team and a very interesting subplot.
“Without a doubt, it was really cool to be able to participate in this match and games like that make us, as players, feel something incredible about football. It was a very special day and game, for me, for the club and for the supporters.”
Aguero concludes: “What matters is that the team held strong, and we struck what in the end was a comfortable victory that will stay in our memory for a long time.
“We had kicked off the season very well, though the holder of the pole position constantly changed, and we couldn't clinch the title until Liverpool began to stumble during the last few matches. And when they did, we were ready to pounce.”