Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday March 10 2008
I'm afraid this is not going to be my most glowing match report. Following the all consuming, intoxicating joy of the victory in the San Siro, the doom and gloom has well and truly set in. From one gloomy, rainswept Northern hub in Italy, to a gloomy, rainswept Northern hub in England. I always felt the Wigan game would represent one of our stiffest tests, since going 5 points clear, Arsenal looked to have lost their nerve at the top of the Premiership table. But an oasis in the desert arrived in the shape of a San Siro evening, a geyser of glory that should have been the catalyst for our title chatge. Instead, we sit limply offering it up as an excuse. United's cup exit to Pompey confirmed their 4-0 victory over us at Old Trafford had been an exercise in futility. All they had gained was an extra match and surrendered the chance to immediately over take Arsenal at the Premiership summit and really apply the pressure. But Arsenal simply did not have the nerve or the legs to seize the initiative.
Much has been written about Arsenal taking to the more salubrious surroundings of the Giuseppe Meazza with greater ubiquity than the unglamorous surroundings of the JJB. But anybody who has been to Milan will tell you it is hardly the most picturesque city, and the San Siro is ostensibly an enormous concrete bowl with little in the way of aesthetic beauty. The conditions were not as far removed from Northern Italy as one would imagine. It is true that Wigan's pitch is an absolute disgrace and basically turns a football game into a lottery. But we knew that before we arrived, we had two big strikers perfectly capable in the air, and the pitch was equally awful in our last two league encounters there, both of which we won. In fairness, Wenger did not offer the surface as an excuse, though he rightly criticised it. But these are the circumstances in which Champions come to the fore and demonstrate that extra 5% that gets you through games like this. Arsenal did not look like they had it yesterday.
The Gunners should have taken the lead in the opening minute, Cesc Fabregas prodded a through ball past the last line of the Wigan defence, Adebayor ran through clean on goal but Kirkland thwarted a poor finish. The pitch did not make him miss that chance. That was pretty much it from Ade, a number of our players, Fabregas, Hleb and Clichy looked leggy but willing. Adebayor gave off the impression that the match was somewhat beneath him, so it was with some shock when it was Bendtner who made way for van Persie in the second half. Bendtner had been more willing and much more dangerous all game than his counterpart. Arsenal made another opportunity on four minutes, Nicklas Bendtner skipped through two Wigan challenges and as he proceeded to strike on goal from close range, the ball skipped up horribly at the moment of impact and the ball trickled harmlessly wide. Pitch very much culpable on that occasion.
A decent block by Emmerson Boyce prevented Adebayor on 7 minutes and Arsenal struggled to create anything thereafter. Wigan fans to our left decided to repeat several chants in celebration of Eduardo's broken leg. The away fans reply of 'you're scum and you know you are' was as accurate as terrace wit can be. (Confusingly, the Wigan fans proceeded to boo Fabregas for the rest of the game for holding his face. How can people exhibit such a stupidly confused value system so loudly and so publicly without self knowledge? Snapped leg, funny. Hold face. Disgusting. It only goes to elucidate the quite unfortunate lack of intelligence of the involved parties). Wigan were determined and resolute opponents, using Koumas and Valencia as spring boards for counter attack. While Brown and Palacios didn't allow Arsenal any room whatsoever. (Note to Wigan fans, they didn't have to snap any legs or make any over the ball challenges to do it either).
With the Gunners lacking inspiration, Robin van Persie was sent for with Kolo Toure moved to the right wing and Gilberto spared any more of the excruciating agony that was his performance. It bears repeating to Lassana Diarra that, if he'd have waited, he would have had a decent chance of making it here. Arsenal laboured unconvincingly, with ten minutes left, Clichy combined with Hleb, Hleb danced past Melchiot on the touchline, only to astoundingly be pulled up by referee Rob Styles for a foul. (I wasn't aware that shimmying was against the rules Rob, thanks for clearing that up). van Persie made a difference and gave us some spark, particularly when referee Styles did not see him shimmy past two Wigan midfielders and sent a swerving cross field ball to Toure. van Persie it was again, who dribbled past two Wigan defenders and tantalisingly opened some space up for himself on the edge of the area on his favourite left foot, as he pulled the trigger the ball skipped up wildly off the surface again and the ball flew over the bar. As I looked down at the eighteen yeard area, I knew we couldn't score, there simply wasn't a patch of surface where we would be allowed to get a shot in without a wild ricket.
At half time, the Wigan groundsmen did not attend to the penalty area we were attacking in the second half. I somehow doubt it was an accidental oversight. In injury time, we looked to have made our chance. van Persie again demonstrated vision to put Cesc Fabregas through on goal, but the young Spaniard waited just a second too long to shoot and Kirkland was able to smother the effort. The final whistle came a glum travelling contingent made haste for the exits in the driving sleet. It is not just the two points dropped, again, that caused the pervasive feeling of doom. But the fact that we clearly just did not have the extra hunger needed to win a game like this. Flamini, Gallas, Sagna and Bendtner showed it, Hleb, Fabregas and Clichy were simply too fatigued. The squad is too small and these players just haven't been afforded any kind of break. It is easy to be wise in hindsight, but with our first choice left wingers the perenially injured Rosicky and Diaby, we were always likely to come up short in that area. Having squandered a five point lead to give United the advantage in less than a month shows that a lack of legs and a lack of nerve have hurt us. We have to count on the fact that United are not in great form themselves, but with matches against Liverpool, United and Chelsea on the horizon, we really have to win all three of those games, as well as dealing with the Premiership's 'filler' teams like Boro and Reading. With so many players missing, and our available players either too tired or too sure of their places, I have to confess, I don't see it happening.LD.
Date:Monday March 10 2008
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