Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday October 7 2007
Well it was a breathless match in what has been an extremely breathless day. Trains came to a complete standstill around my way on Sunday morning. In turn, this meant I spent most of my Sunday morining jogging around Croydon in search of a functioning train. Having spent my Saturday in front of the box, watching the England v Australia match with a few beers, before deciding to watch the France v. New Zealand match with a few beers, before watching the Amir Khan fight with a few more beers. Well, you can well imagine I was hardly in a state to be breathlessly plodding through the streets of West Croydon. Consequently, I missed the first five minutes of the game, the only five minutes of Premiership football Arsenal have played in six years which have not unfolded before my eyes. Had I not been on the verge of a cardiac arrest, I might have been quite upset about it!
I did thankfully arrive in time to see the first goal and an absolute masterpiece it was. Cesc Fabregas was tripped on the edge of the penalty area, the ball ran to Abou Diaby who drilled it into the top corner. Unfortunately, the referee's whistle had long since blown and we were left to rue what might have been. We needn't have bothered! van Persie stepped up before smashing an unstoppable free kick in off the underside of the crossbar, the woodwork visibly whincing in recognition of the Dutchman's fierce strike. Arsenal, already enjoying astronomical confidence levels, began to knock the ball around with liberal abandon, Hleb and Fabregas assuming the role of chief tormentors. It was nearly two nil minutes later when Adebayor showed insatiable desire to attack a Sagna cross and loop his header goalwards, only for Craig Gordon to thrust out a limb and tip it over the bar. The Gunners' did double their lead eventually, Fabregas' corner was hazardously turned back towards his own goal by the electric Kenwyne Jones, Nosworthy hooked it away as far as Adebayor. Ade's cross was cheekily flicked on via the instep of Abou Diaby and Philippe Senderos scuffed the ball agaonisingly into the corner. Ironically, had his connection been anything approaching true, his effort would most likely have been blocked.
A rout looked to be on the cards, as the atmosphere dropped in mute expectation, fans began to chatter amongst themselves, confident of a sizeable victory. Arsenal were outrageously denied a third by as incompetent a piece of assistant refereeing as you're likely to see. Fabregas played in Hleb on the right flank, Hleb aimed a low cross at the surging Mathieu Flamini, clearly onside with the linesman in a good position. The ball broke to Diaby who dispatched calmly, but the lino's over eager flag saw the effort chalked off. It was a decision the equal of Salomon Kalou's unjust flag against Blackburn a few weeks previous. It was a psychological turning point as Arsenal played with the handbrake on, their concentration having tangibly deserted them. It was an irresponsible psyche to adopt, anybody expecting a side managed by Roy Keane to lay down and die is in need of a stark reality check. Arsenal got theirs when Kenwyne Jones outmuscled Clichy, who had a poor game, only to have his shot blocked by the onrushing Almunia. Ross Wallace collected the rebound, chesting it down past Toure before cooly slamming home a consolation.
The Gunners' forged another opportunity to put Sunderland out of sight. Gordon tipped over van Persie's dipping drive and from the resultant corner, Senderos lost his marker at the back post, but somehow contrived to head wide with the net at his mercy. Sunderland had been content to sit back and play on the counter attack in the first half, but they took the game to Arsenal in the second period and were rewarded with an unlikely equaliser. With Bacary Sagna nowhere to be seen, Wallace had all the time in the world to ping in a left wing cross, Clichy was left marking two players, but Kenwyne Jones flattened all and sundry by leaping to head the cross in from close range. Almunia should have saved the effort comfortably, but I feel he was caught attempting some theatrics and ended up palming it limply into his own net. The home side had dug themsleves a hole, and it would take vast mental resources to expiate themsleves from the predicament with Jones giving the Arsenal backline a torrid time.
Walcott and Eboue were brought on on the right, whilst Hleb took his twinkling toes to the left to replace the ineffective Diaby. Walcott looked very lost again, his lack of bravery and confidence was rather noticeable. There was no lack of bravery or confidence in Kolo Toure. He marched forwards with another of his trademark runs, before unleashing a stinging exerset from thirty five yards. It crashed ferociously off the post and Toure was denied a screamer that his performances of late easily warranted. The rebound fell to van Persie's left foot on the edge of the box, but he screwed his effort wide with the woodwork still vibrating hypnotically. Arsenal carried on pressing with Hleb at the heart of Arsenal's every move, he played a deft one two with Fabregas on the edge of the box, feinted and dummied past two despairing Sunderland tackles before pulling the ball back into the six yard box. But it skipped up in front of young Walcott, compromising the wing heeled youngster's connection. Adebayor toiled in vain to hook the ball in with his heel, but the chance had gone.
Despite the feeling of tension permeating the stadium, the third goal always looked likely and it duly arrived eight minutes from time. Fabregas played a clever ball into the feet of Walcott, who had moved into a more central position, Theo angled an intelligent ball into van Persie who took a controlling touch in the area before beating Gordon's despairing dive with an early shot. The sense of relief was palpable, but the drama was not over. Liam Miller looped the ball over Toure, giving himself just the goalkeeper to bat, but Almunia was immensely brave, throwing himself into the path of the ball and rushing Miller's effort. The rebound fell to Jones, but as he angled his shot across goal, Miller was unable to pull himself to his feet to divert it goalward. Arsenal could have bagged a fourth, Walcott, imbued with confidence from his assist, meandered between two Sunderland defenders only to see his low shot hit the inside of the post.
With the board for injury time about to go up, Alex Hleb cleverly took the ball off Paul McShane. As Hleb raced to retrieve the ball from the touchline, McShane took exception to being outwitted so blatantly and aimed a lunging challenge at Hleb's, ahem, bread basket. As with Noble a week earlier, unsatisfied by missing Hleb with one foot, he thought he'd have a pop with the other leg, bringing his knee purposely towards Hleb's face. It was a deserved red card, Roy Keane was inches away and he did not contest the decision at all, in fact, he admirably removed McShane from the fray quick smart. It will be interesting to see the football association's view on what followed. With Rob Styles holding the card aloft, McShane forcibly took the referee by the wrist and threw his arm down in mock horror at the decision. True to their almost laughable form, the football association have made trouble for themselves. John Terry performed a similar action a fortnight ago, but as is the rule with England captains, he was not punished. Now the F.A has a situation where they either let McShane off and justify and condone aggressive behaviour towards match officials in the exact week they have made such a song and dance about eradicating such incident. Or they punish him and illustrate to the world what a bunch of jilted, spineless no marks they are and concede that England internationals are privy to different regulations. I await their response with bated breath.LD.
Date:Sunday October 7 2007
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