Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday February 12 2008
In the build up to the Blackburn match, I felt an apprehension that I have not felt in the build up to a league fixture in some time. I have enjoyed watching Arsenal prove everybody wrong with the wonderful season they have been having up to this point. However, it had always been my expectation that United would eventually supercede us for the title, I was just enjoying the ride. But with the weekend's results going our way, a win over Blackburn would see us in a most tantalising position. (Speaking of the weekend's games, if everybody is serious about binning this crappy 39th game idea, please ask the Premier League to run Liverpool v Chelsea matches on a repititive loop intercontinentally, all interest will wane in an instant).
Arriving in the Arsenal Tavern I managed to get my first ever view of Arsenal TV, being a customer of Virgin Media (not for much longer I might add) I haven't been afforded the privilege. (F.O.D has been on the case for some time over at Goonerholic). Being treated to a rerun of the 2002 F.A Cup Final, I considered that for the sake of my professional/social/love life it's probably better that I don't have it! The starting line up saw Wenger very restricted in his options, the substitutes bench had three full backs present, including the forgotten man Kerrea Gilbert. The Gunners' began at pace, relishing the opportunity to capitalise on Moan United's misfortune. The livewire that is Bacary Sagna raced up the right hand side on two minutes, delivering a precise cross to Cesc Fabregas, which the flu ridden Catalonian chested down in front of goal, only to be thwarted by Friedel. It would only be another two minutes before Arsenal distilled threat into fruition, Eduardo's right wing corner firmly headed home by Philippe Senderos from six yards. It was the start that everybody had hoped for.
Roared on by a jubilant crowd, resplendant in their 'who the fuck are Man United?' chants, Arsenal looked to hammer home their advantage. Cesc Fabregas' header put Matty Flamini in the clear, the Corsican bore down on goal only to see his shot beaten away by the legs of the evergreen Brad Friedel. But Arsenal lost their mojo around the 25 minute mark. I think the enormity of the occasion got to them, their limbs imbued with nerves and apprehension. Passes began to go astray, Fabregas' influence on the right was minimal. Tugay began to pull some strings for Blackburn. On 36 minutes, Brett Emerton whipped in a dangerous cross which was flicked on by McCarthy and headed wide by Roque Santa Cruz. Minutes later, Ooijer's low cross just missed Santa Cruz at the back post as Arsenal begged for half time. In the build up to the match, I had feared a phonecall from Sparky's old mentor Fergie might have seen Blackburn employ some 'robust' tackling. To their credit, they were playing the good passing game. I really hope Rovers' uber violence days are over, they have better players than that.
A Bentley free kick pushed wide by Lehmann looked to set the tone for what would be a nervous second half. But Blackburn could not really provide much of a cutting edge. If ever there was an illustration of why we let David Bentley go, not only was it provided by another average performance against quality opposition, but watching him share the same flank as the majestic Alex Hleb was ample evidence as to why Bentley was never Arsenal material. Hleb was at the heart of Arsenal's every move, beating his markers with either a burst of pace or his gravity defying trickery. Do any Arsenal fans seriously doubt this guy anymore? Eduardo was instrumental in our build up play, with Adebayor playing constantly on the shoulder of the alst defender. In it was our two creative pivots that provided the next chance, Eduardo put in a low cross from the left, picking out Hleb and his left foot shot thumped the base of the post.
Adebayor's influence began to grow, he collected Eduardo's chip forwards, accelerated past the half fit Ooijer but saw his shot saved via the legs of Friedel. Arsenal looked to be caught between two stalls, defending their lead and extending it. Blackburn were afforded more possession than was comfortable for the 60,000 crowd, but just could not do provide a cutting edge. This was thanks largely to an impeccible display from the back four. (People might be interested to know that the only game Senderos has missed in the last month was the 5-1 reverse at Tottenham). Another Hleb left footer, this time from outside the area, stung the palms of Friedel, Eduardo could not control the rebound. But with the crowd growing ever more anxious, the Gunners finally sealed the result in injury time. Once again, Hleb found himself a pocket of space on the edge of the Blackburn area, spun a low ball into Adebayor, who took one touch before despatching a low shot past Friedel. A collective exhalation of relief followed all round.
Five points clear and we find ourselves in a great position. But as a word of wanring, almost exactly five years ago to the day, the Gunners went five points clear after a 5-1 win at Maine Road and promptly blew the title. Though only Toure and Gilberto survive from that squad, the manager will surely have this in his mind. The performances of Sagna and Hleb were huge plusses, whilst Gallas' leadership skills continue to draw absolutely no attention from anybody outside of the Gooner consensus. Possibly because he's not an attention seeking poster boy and concentrates on playing football. If elucidation were needed fro Matty Flamini's inclusion at the expense of Gilberto, watching them play alongside one another last night was it. Whilst Bert did his defensive duties relatively well, his distribution was shocking and he often sold himself easily in the face of running Blackburn midfielders. Flamini on the other hand, looked the seasoned professional, plugging gaps left by forraying defenders and providing several telling interceptions. Ironically, with matches against Manchester United and A.C. Milan on the horizon, the Birmingham City games that proceeds it is surely the most vital.LD.
Date:Tuesday February 12 2008
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