Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday January 7 2008
Far be it from me to suggest that the big clubs lack media coverage, however, F.A. Cup Third Round day is a rare event in the footballing calendar as much of the media gaze seems to be fixed firmly on the minnows. I've no doubt Burnley were excited about the prospect of a visit from the Premiership leaders. However, from the perspective of a travelling supporter, the Cup provides, in its early rounds, an opportunity for the big boys to experience something new and exciting. So it was with great relish I awoke at 4am to undertake the long sojourn to the sleepy Lancashire town of Burnley. This was my first visit to Turf Moor and the first time I have been able to visit a new ground in England in over two years (since we drew Doncaster Rovers in the League Cup). I must admit to having fallen out of love with the Cup in recent years, precisely because drawing the likes of Bolton and Blackburn every year has rendered the competition little more than a moderately attractive nuisance. In truth, I was beginning to prefer the Carling Cup.
But the chance for some tourism off the beaten track was most appreciated, as we met with some Burnley supporting acquaintances and had a nice lukewarm pint of Thwaites on the Burnley cricket ground, which overlooks Turf Moor. Entering the ground in good spirits amidst a sea of noisy Gooners, the concourse leading to our enclosure was dimly lit, with the roof arced miles above our head, it gave one of the feeling of being in a railway underpass. The dank smell of urine from the urinals (well, it was more of a trough actually) multiplied this aura, in fact, I was surprised not to see crude graffiti and gangs of hooded teenagers eyeing me suspiciously as I made my way towards my seat. The away end was incredibly steep and I even found myself indulging a kind of perverse aristocratic tourism by photographing my seat. The seats were crude wooden structures which, had any of the visiting support actually used them, may have left a few splintered rear ends come four p.m. The paint had long since peeled off the over arching stansions in the roof and a cancerous rust had taken them over. Far from dampen the enthusiasm, the primitive conditions really gave the away fans a sense of occasion and purpose, this is what the F.A. Cup is supposed to be about. Though I admit that I have never had any time for underdogs, rosy cheeked with their brand new rosettes pinned steadfastly to chests. Much is said about how much clubs like Arsenal destroy the soul of football, but the underdog brings out the worst kind of glory hunter. With smaller clubs on the brink of extinction, I have come to despise the way stay away fans raise themselves to attend the visit of a giant, but cannot wrest themselves from their armchairs to regularly watch their side and swell some coffers. The way smaller sides raise their games so gargantuanly has always troubled me, I often wonder how different fortunes would be if they managed to raise themselves in a similar manner in the mundane humdrum of league football. The atmosphere was louder and more raucuous than I have heard this season, one might attribute this to the greater numbers, as F.A. Cup games offer the chance for increased allocations. But I think the rustic surroundings and unglamorous opposition really added something. When you're used to being spoon fed caviar every week, occasionally, bangers and mash can really massage the taste buds.
As the match kicked off, I was struck by the tension from the home crowd, with Burnley's recent run of poor form, they appeared pensive, awaiting the worst. But after just four minutes they were ejected from their reverie when Philippe Senderos failed to deal with Alexander's ball down the line to Andy Gray, his right wing cross was met with a firm header by Kyle Lafftery which rattled the crossbar. Sensing some nerves in Senderos and Traore, Burnley would continue to attack our vulnerable left side all afternoon. But Arsenal got the message and assumed control of the game. Kolo Toure's long chip out of defence saw Eduardo find space betwixt the Burnley centre halves, the ball bobbled and took an age to come down, but Eduardo was troubled little as he composed himself in typical fashion before cooly slotting beyond Gabor 'Bananas in Pyjamas' Kiraly. Eduardo's current form should hopefully spell an end to the lone striker experiment in the absence of van Persie.
The uneven surface was proving to be something of a leveller, as Arsenal could not get the ball under their spell. Gilberto showed some ring rustiness early on with some stray passes (which he rectified gradually as the game went on), whilst Traore appeared uncharacteristically reluctant to get forward. Arsenal might have extended their lead on 20 minutes, the impressive Denilson floated over a right wing corner, which Gilberto headed goalwards only to see Graham Alexander clear off the line. The Gunners troublingly slipped back into first gear thereafter, succumbing to a complacent malaise which allowed Burnley back into the game. Firstly, Gray blasted a long shot over and when Armand Traore dallied over a clearance near his own goal line, Wade Elliott dispossessed him and pulled back for McCann, but he leant back and blasted over too. A smart Nicklas Bendtner bicycle kick was the visitors only other real forray on goal as half time arrived. A fifteen minute rendition of 'Arsene Wenger's red army' was really the only other highlight of a quite subdued performance.
Arsenal had the opportunity to put the game beyond Burnley in the opening minutes of the half. Bendtner played a swift one two with Eduardo which left the Crozilian through on goal. 'Two nil' I exclaimed as he bore down on Kiraly, but inexplicably he put the ball wide. In fact, the goal below me was partially obscured and I must confess I even celebrated as he slotted the ball past Kirlay and the Hungarian 'keeper stood statuesque, until I saw the expression of shock on Eduardo's face. Eduardo missing in that situation was yet another first for the visiting support in a day of discovery. I guess the sun shines on a dog's arse at least once a day. Arsenal looked relatively comfortable, though Burnley's tenacity made it impossible to adopt any rhythm. Thankfully, Sagna and Toure were on their usual flawless form, while Senderos appeared to have a word with himself at half time after a frankly woeful first half display from the young Swiss. Traore still looked ill at ease and was withdrawn for for young German full back Jurgen Hoyte.
Burnley had a real chcne to equalise when Robbie Blake's free kick found McCann unmarked from close range, but he once again misjudged basic metrics as he ehaded over. Soon after, the home side were reduced to ten men after a rash challenge from Kyle Lafferty on Gilberto. I would have to see it again to produce a firm conclusion, but I felt it was a tad harsh, more an act of frustration than one of violence. But with the speed of play so frantic, I cannot remember how far above the ball Lafferty lunged. I was mindful though of another questionable challenge from Denilson in the first period. The young Brazilian came away with the ball, but again appeared to lunge in a similar manner to his indiscretion in nearby Blackburn.
Burnley briefly rallied, buoyed by a sense of injustice. But the Gunners put the game to bed with fifteen minutes remaining. Eduardo picked out Bendtner with a cute slide rule pass and the Dane rounded Kiraly before slotting Arsenal into a two goal lead. The remainder of the game was played out in a perfunctory manner, with Arsenal playing keep ball and Burnley all out of juice. An Eduardo shot stung the paws of Kiraly, but otherwise the dying embers of the game were a mere gesture. It was hardly the most convincing display from Arsenal, complacency, conditions and a resolute home side were all contributing factors. But we were clinical with our chances and, really, did the bare minimum to achieve a result. Now for the Fourth Round draw as we await a trip to somewhere horrible and boring. Boro or somwhere like that.LD.
Date:Monday January 7 2008
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