This was the game that had been looked forward to for months; Manchester City against Arsenal. Champions versus challengers. Master against apprentice on the touchline and a host of stars on both sides of the pitch.
The Etihad Stadium looked gorgeous as kick-off loomed on a sunny spring evening in the northern metropolis of Manchester.
Having now usurped Old Trafford as the city’s premier football venue, as demonstrated by its selection for the Euro 2028 bid, the steep stands and tentative tifos certainly made the Etihad feel like the centre of the universe as the teams entered the pitch.
But what followed was, for the neutral, an anti-climax. City were far superior to Arsenal in every department, running out comprehensive 4-1 winners after 90 minutes that made you feel like the Gunners’ position at the Premier League summit was a misprint.
Kevin de Bruyne was imperious, scoring twice and providing an assist, and toying with Granit Xhaka in the manner of the family cat playing with a half-shredded pigeon.
It goes without saying that Erling Haaland was also excellent, even if it took until injury time and the releasing of his Prince Charming locks from its hair bobble to finally beat Aaron Ramsdale.
Everywhere you looked, City oozed quality; John Stones continued to blossom into the English Beckenbauer, Manuel Akanji furthered his credentials as bargain of the season while Ilkay Gundogan patrolled midfield in his dressing gown and slippers.
And there was Jack Grealish. Despite not reaching the heights of recent performances, Grealish was a thorn in Ben White’s side as the two boohoo employees locked horns.
But it was his confrontation with another Arsenal player that got the Etihad crowd into full-throated, red-faced venom. City were 3-0 ahead and cruising when Thomas Partey was dumped on his arse by Bernardo Silva.
Grealish gave Partey a friendly-fire nudge in the back, activating his opponent’s berserk button. Partey thrust an arm into Grealish’s face, causing the England international to react as if slapped in a medieval duel.
As the pair squared up to each other, grappling each other’s shirts like teenage lovers at an underage disco, it was possible to notice a subtle difference between the pair.
Partey was fuelled by anger and frustration at a fading title challenge, Grealish the righteous indignation of the reigning champion putting a pretender in their place. Compelling stuff.
Grealish has arguably been one of the standout Premier League players since the World Cup break, cementing himself in City’s starting XI at the expense of the gifted Phil Foden.
“At Villa I was more free,” Grealish said in an interview with The Guardian last September. “At City, there’s more structure. It was obviously going to change my game a bit.
“I am very critical of myself. I know that there were games, especially in the second half of last season, where I wasn’t at my best.
“I came back fit, had a strong pre‑season and then, unfortunately, got injured in the second game. But I’m just going to try and get that fitness back because I know I’m not 100% yet. But I’ll always have people on the back of me.
“When I signed for Man City I knew it wasn’t going to all be laughs unless I started the way Erling Haaland did.
“That’s the only way I wouldn’t get caned. I’m not going to sit here and say ‘nothing ever affects me’ because it does sometimes. I’ve had to learn to deal with it.”
Grealish has silenced those doubters with a string of impressive performances that proved he truly belongs at the Etihad. And his grappling with Partey, in a dark arts masterclass that’d capture the heart of Severus Snape, would only have further endeared him to the City faithful.
By Michael Lee