Manager Pep Guardiola called Nathan Ake an “exceptional guy” after he sent Manchester City into the FA Cup fifth round with the winning goal in a narrow victory over Premier League title rivals Arsenal.
The Gunners have established an impressive lead in the league but it was City who shaded a tight contest thanks to Ake’s precise 64th-minute finish after good work from Jack Grealish.
Arsenal had chances of their own, especially in the first half when City goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, deputising for Ederson, saved well from Takehiro Tomiyasu and new signing Leandro Trossard.
There was little to choose between the sides and their Premier League battle will come into focus once more when they meet at Emirates Stadium on 15 February.
“We were definitely better in the second half. Arsenal have taken a step forward. It was a tight game and you realize how good a side they are,” Guardiola said.
“What a season he [Ake] is playing. He controlled one of the toughest opponents in the Premier League because Bukayo Saka is in an incredible moment. He is really good in the duels in the box, defending the far post and set-pieces is an extra bonus.
“He is an exceptional guy, there was a period where he didn’t play and he never complained once. As a manager you want players like Nathan. He deserves all the good things in life.”
City will view this as a psychological blow aimed in the direction of Arsenal, who manager Pep Guardiola has publicly recognised as the biggest threat to their hopes of retaining their title.
City were again short of their fluid best but have a squad so rich in quality and versatility that there is invariably a match-winning moment, on this occasion provided by Grealish’s weaving run into the area and a clever finish from Ake.
Erling Haaland was quiet but the fact that City got over the line against opponents who have become so formidable, and who have lost only one league game this season, will delight Guardiola.
It was victory that came at a cost, however, with defender John Stones – so outstanding for his club this season and for England at the World Cup – forced off on the stroke of half-time after pulling up clutching his hamstring.
Stones has been an influential presence for City and Guardiola will hope the medical bulletin does not present a long-term problem.
Arsenal can be encouraged
For Arsenal, this was a rare taste of defeat this season – but there was enough for manager Mikel Arteta to be encouraged by as they turn attentions back to the league.
The Gunners put the shackles on goal machine Haaland, and in the first half – with recent £21m arrival Trossard prominent – they were a real threat going forward, with Ortega the busier goalkeeper.
It was all achieved with key men Martin Odegaard, Oleksandr Zinchenko, William Saliba, Gabriel Martinelli and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale held back from the starting line-up.
Arsenal pushed to the end and it required real bravery from Ortega to keep them at bay in tight goalmouth situations.
“I think we could have got much more out of the game,” Arteta told ITV.
“We had big situations in the game and we didn’t put them away. We can take a lot of positives, I think the way we approached the game and competed. It is really difficult to win against this team but we went head to head with them.
“In the big moments, in big matches, you have the make the difference. That is how you win these games.”
While Arteta will be hurt by the defeat there was plenty in Arsenal’s performance to not regard this as too much of a setback.
Neither manager drawing conclusions
Guardiola and Arteta were not drawing too many conclusions from the first big battle between the clubs this season when they spoke to the media afterwards.
Both will take away a measure of satisfaction, City with another FA Cup win to follow up their third-round victory against Chelsea, while Arteta’s understandable disappointment in defeat will be tempered somewhat by a good performance.
On the downside, both managers were left to rue injuries to key men.
Arsenal will hope Thomas Partey’s rib injury, which requires a scan, will not prove a major problem for the hugely influential midfield man – although it is likely to increase their urgency to conclude a deal for Brighton’s Moses Caicedo, having had a £60m bid turned down.
City’s worry will be around Stones, who came off late in the first half with a hamstring injury. Guardiola has strength in that central defensive department but Stones has been one of his outstanding and consistent performers this season.