Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 2 2008
This was a game very much played in mitigating circumstances, after a week of idle chit chat in which the club has amazingly come under fire in the wake of Eduardo's injury, this was the time to respond and demonstrate to the pernicious vultures that weweren't going to crack. Ultimately, we did not respond. With last week's baleful trauma serving as a conduit to yesterday's match, Arsenal came up short against a panoramic Villa side. Having gone behind early on, Villa were superbly marshalled and an injury ravaged Arsenal side just did not have the available options to sufficiently alter the game.
Arsenal began brightly enough, Fabregas played a ball into Theo Walcott, with his back to goal Walcott riggled past Davies but had his shot tunred away by Carson. It was a positive sign from young Theo,the first time he has looked dangerous with his back to goal, obviously some work has gone into this aspect of his game. But Villa gradually got a foothold in the game and nullified Arsenal easily. For once an away side was proving that an overly caustic approach was not necessarily required to play the Arsenal. A Barry through ball but Gabby Agbonlohor through on goal,only for the wing heeled youngster to be denied by a superb last ditch tackle from Gallas. However, the warning was not heeded. Maloney this time slipped Agbonlohor through on the shoulder of the last defender with Clichy playing him onside, Agbonlohor played a low ball in which took a freak deflection off of Senderos and went in. It was a cruel demonstration of what can happen when your luck is out. Senderos was not in line with the goal, on any other day the ball cannons off him and goes out for a corner. But the ball ricocheted off him at an unlikely angle and a defecit we hardly welcomed had been actualised.
But Villa responded to their serendipitous goal commendably, applying a widescreen approach to the game which the Gunners found difficult to dilute. Villa might have moved into a two goal lead when Maloney cracked one from distance and Almunia's selfish amateur dramatics nearly cost us. Almunia tried to make a routine save into a piece of Bohemian art and nearly pushed the ball into the net when he should have palmed it well clear from danger. Arsenal could not establish any kind of rhythm, the usually ubiquitous Flamini looked tired and weary. The mesmeric Hleb looked ambivalent, Diaby was his typically idle self and Adebayor and Walcott were isolated against the superb Davies and Laursen. For all the commendation for Villa's team, the fans hardly did themselves any credit with a quite shameful song celebrating Eduardo's injury clearly audible in the Grove. I would like to tell you it was a minority but the volume and malicious valour with which the chant went up indicates that most of the 3,000 joined in. Banter in football is all very well, lord knows we are happy to sing about Tottenham manager's mothers, but this one did stick in the craw. Ironically about 90 seconds later Curtis Davies was stretchered off with a ruptured achilles tendon. I would like to wish him a speedy recovery, I would hope his misfortune would make those Villa fans think twice. But given Makelele's despicable challenge on Faubert yesterday, I can only deduce that nobody has really learned anything this week. So I don't hold much faith in Villa Park suddenly becoming a cauldron of enlightenment.
Right on half time, Arsenal made their best chance. Walcott raced down the right, skinning Laursen before playing the ball to Adebayor, he laid off for Fabregas, but Cesc's chip was overly pronounced and the chance had gone. Arsenal began the second half with gusto, a one two between Fabregas and Walcott saw Theo force a save from Carson. But thereafter, Villa looked comfortable with Arsenal's pressure. Bendtner was the Gunners only option from the bench, with so many injuries we did not have the facilities to change the game. If anything, Villa looked like grabbng a second on the counter attack. Ashley Young and Marlon Harewood forced good saves from Almunia, whilst Adebayor headed over from a Sagna cross. It all looked incredibly desperate. With mere seconds remaining, Clichy elucidated his newly found crossing prowess to curve an arced cross to the backpost, Adebayor stretched every sinew of his neck to head the ball down and Nicklas Bendtner was composure personnified as he slotted home from close range. The goal was greeted with a sense of muted euphoria. The point still did not represent excellent value for us, though we probably did not deserve the point we got.
However, the point keeps us top and with the margins as tight as they are, it could be the point that makes the difference. Hopefully, the point will be of great psychological value. If a last minute equaliser knocked the stuffing out of us last week, a last gasp equaliser might rejuvenate us this week. United now may live to regret knocking us out of the Cup, their commitments next weekend deny them the chance to go top prior to our game against Wigan and really crank the pressure up. Instead we are instantly awardedthe chance to stretch the lead to four points and heap the pressure squarely on United. It is very disappointing to have squandered a five point lead so quickly, but don't believe this 'United are unstoppable' crap. They have seven points from their last twelve, we have eight. United lost to Citeh and much like us, grabbed a scarsely deserved last gasp leveller at Spurs. United have not handled the pressure of being top, every time they have reached the summit, they have immediately surrendered their advantage within two games. The power is still with us, particularly with van Persie and Rosicky to return. United have been impressive in their last two games, but Newcastle and Fulham hardly represent the league's stiffest challenges. There are many forks in the road yet, I just hope Bendtner's last ditch goal represents greater mental value than the point it ultimately salvaged.LD.
Date:Sunday March 2 2008
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