Gunners Can Handle Themselves
As the coach made its way past the desolate estates of Croxteth, the radio was piping coverage from Upton Park to us. United led 1-0 and seemed very comfortable, just as the coach parked up, United were awarded a penalty. The Gooners who had stayed on the coach to listen to the remainder of the match began to collect their coats and leave, leaving just me and a mate unwilling to brave the blustery Merseyside conditions. By the time Ronaldo had blasted his penalty wide, our coach was barren. West Ham conspired of course to score two goals in the remaining thirteen minutes of the game to put a real spring in our step as we made haste for the Bullens Road Upper Tier. Wenger took a necessary gamble in resting a weary Rosicky and Adebayor in favour of Demolition Diaby, and supersub Nicky Bendtner would partner Eduardo upfront. The expectation in the away section was rife as we prepared to reassume top spot only three days after having been knocked off our perch.
Arsenal started the match reasonably well, with a good tempo. Bendtner and Eduardo looked hungry for the ball, as Diaby and Clichy linked up well on the left, leaving the partisan home support hushed. But gradually the hosts gameplan kicked in as Arteta began to find space and Yakubu chased long balls. On 19 minutes, Yakubu shoulder charged Toure and won Everton a corner under the noses of the visiting fans. (Four minutes later, Bendtner was booked for the same offence). Arteta swung the corner into the near post, Sagna could only flick his dreadlocks at it, Bendtner could not clear it at the back post, and Tim Cahill stopped in to give Everton the lead from close range. The Everton supporters mistakenly believed that Yakubu had scored, as they serenaded the Nigerian target man. From there on, the half belonged to Everton. Hleb and Fabregas found themselves double marked every time they received the ball, and subsequently Bendtner and Eduardo were starved of service. Though the home side did not create a great deal, though Arteta's excellent delivery provided some nervy moments from set pieces. Phil Neville scooped a shot over after good play between Cahill and Arteta. There was an unfortunate incident as Kolo Toure was struck by an object thrown from the ground. I did not see a single steward make any sort of movement towards the offending area for the entire match. But at half time, I was thinking that I would take a point.
But the Gunners gave themselves a timely boost just two minutes into the second half. Unusually, it would arrive via route one, Clichy's hopeful long ball was misjudged by Phil Jagielka and Eduardo showed his astounding nous in the box by gambling on the ball arriving, he controlled it- probably with his arm- before steadying himself and beating Howard with a finish of inhuman composure. Every time the Crozilian finds himself in that sort of position, he scores. I would be interested to see his goals to shots ratio in our colours, I'm sure he'd be pushing a 90% conversion rate. The Bullens Road stand became reinvigorated with hope, as the game began to look genuinely winnable for the first time. Though Arsenal were fortunate when Lescott's cross found Yakubu Aiyegbeni completely unmarked eight yards out, only for the prolific marksman to head wide. Anybody who has been to Merseyside to watch football will be aware of a curious regional phenomenon exclusive to Liverpool and Everton fans, whereby they cry, 'HANDBALL!!!!' just about every time the ball leaves the ground. Well, on 58 minutes, the natives cry would be grounded in genuine injustice as opposed to pathetic whining. Another Clichy high ball was flicked on by Nicklas 'Smudger' Bendtner, and Eduardo flicked the ball around Jagielka, before appearing to control it with his hand again and slotting beyond the stranded Tim Howard.
The sense of injustice was not lost on the 3,000 travelling faithful who had a perfect view of Eduardo's indiscretion. 'Score when we handball, we only score when he handball,' came the acknowledgement, followed by the even more cutting, 'Handball, to the Arsenal.' The Evertonians grateful applause would morph into fully blown scorn as the Gunners weren't finished with the mockery, a self mocking 'same old Arsenal, always cheating' incensed the locals. At the third attempt the official, presumably embarrassed at being mocked by his beneficiaries, booked Eduardo for another Maradona impression. But the chances of smash and grab looked to be on the wane on 74 minutes when Nicklas Bendtner, already on a booking, raised his studs to Andrew Johnson and was correctly dismissed. There has been suggestion since of some tomfoolery on the touchline, Wenger wanted to sub Bendtner but could not owing to a fault with the Fourth Official's technical equipment. I have to say, I was sat directly adjacent to the bench and I had the distinct impression that the decision to delay the substitution was Arsenal's. In any case, Bendtner's challenge was naive. I genuinely don't think it was as malicious as it might have appeared, I think he wanted to use his body to shield the ball and stuck a leg out in order to position himself between ball and player. (You may recall a similar challenge by Jamei Redknapp a few years back). But it was ill timed, ill judged and he deserved his marching orders.
As Bendtner left the field, the sleet began to hammer down, ricocheting noisily on the roof above us. Exactly the type of conditions our fancy dan foreigners cannot handle. Almunia saved from a Johnson flick on and clung manfully to a low Lee Carsley strike. And on 78 minutes, Almunia would be credited with an unlikely assist. His hopeful punt forward just evaded Adebayor's leap and with the ball drifting back towards Tim Howard, the Togonator showed tremendous desire to chase the ball down and capitalise on a seconds hesitation between Yobo and Howard, prodding the ball between Howard's legs before treading the red carpet to an empty goal. Game over it seemed, as the delighted Gooner entourage belted out, 'we are top of the league' and a seasonal chorus of jingle balls. But there was still drama to come. Fabregas hassled Arteta in possession, forcing him to turn his back towards goal, frustrated by Cesc's close attention, Arteta lashed out with a hand into Fabregas' face. Much seems to have been made of a Cesc over reaction (which he was certainly guilty of with the infamous Ashley Cole incident), but Arteta clearly raised an arm and connected. Textbook red card. I admit the force probably wasn't enough to leave Cesc writhing in agony, but forcible enough to garner sufficient contact. David Moyes may well whine post match about perceived Fabregas hystrionics, but its a clear red card and Arteta should have known better. Besides, Moyes knows all about gamesmanship, he once bought a player called Andy Johnson.
The fizz evaporated from Everton's game at that point, Fabregas, public enemy number one amongst those of the Blue persuasion, was removed presumably to prevent him from exacting the retribution of a marked man. Tomas Rosicky would replace him and become Arsenal's third scoring substitute in three games. Adebayor received Clichy's pass on the left, teased Jagielka, before prodding the ball to Rosicky through the most minute of gaps and Rosicky neatly smashed home a fourth to leave us with a scoreline which scarsely reflected Everton's performance. The final whistle was greeted with a rousing rendition of 'we shall not be moved' as a game that looked lost at half time, somehow morphed into a resounding win against one of the Premiership's form sides. Three route one goals, five bookings and a red card amidst the sleet and hail of a December evening in the North West shows that Arsenal have got their edge back. We proved that not only can we kick it, we can handle it too.LD