Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 30 2008
The crepuscle sunshine in Croydon as I made my way North could not have been more of a red herring. As we turned off the motorway into Middlebrook, the rain swept in ferociously, as if the menacing grey clouds that teased us throughout the whole journey had desperately held it all in before the clouds evacuated their bowels just in time for 3pm. The stereotypical Lancastrian afternoon just 24 hours before the beginning of British summer. The Reebok Stadium has proved to be a giant hubris in Arsenal's last few league campaigns. To this day, the Bolton fans serenade us with a convival chorus of '2-0 and you fucked it up!' in tribute to THAT game in April 2003 when we unceremoniously blew the title on their patch. (You know why I'm adding that in, right?) With a wretched run of form coupled with a crippling injury list, the odds couldnot have been more firmly stacked against us.....or so I thought.
Anticipating Bolton's aerial luftwafe style tactics, Philippe Senderos was deservedly reinstated at centre half with Toure shifting to right back. In truth, I think Senderos' reinstatement should become a more permamant one, Toure looks sapped of energy right now and it showed in his laboured offensive play yesterday. After an early forray forward, Toure stopped coming forward for corners, an acknowelegement that he did not have the energy to track back. The Gunners began the game very positively. van Persie dropping off into space, a trait we have missed so dearly, with Bolton leaving acres of space in behind. In the 7th minute, Arsenal exploited this as van Persie played Bendtner through, but the Dane bafflingly delayed his shot with Cahill snapping at his heels and the resulting effort was weak. My mates and I spoke about how crucial it was to score early while we were on top and Bolton looked a mere skin and bone casing of the 'spirited' cloggers who had derailed us in seasons past. But it looks like this is an Arsenal team slow to learn their lessons, just as we did against Villa and Boro, we allowed the opposition to score with their first attack. Diouf laid the ball into Steinsson, Diaby did not bother to intercept, and Steinsson's cross was met with a firm Matt Taylor header, Taylor outmuscling Toure in the air and Almunia making a pretty poor attempt at the save.
Toure hanging back from corners nearly paid a rich dividend. Fabregas curled a corner into the area, headed clear by Cahill, Toure picked up the ball on the edge of the area and, eyeing the slippery conditions, drove a low shot which deflected off of Gallas and drifted agonisingly wide. A neat snapshot of the luck we have enjoyed of late. A moment of madness was to handicap us further. Abou Diaby leapt into a challenge against Steinsson and was deservedly given his marching orders. Fortunately, Steinsson was able to jump out of the challenge and avoid serious injury. Diaby should know better than most how destructive such tackles can be. He is fortunate that the F.A's refusal to deal with this kind of tackle appropriately will only see him banished for three games, it should be a fair few more. The Gunners continued to plug away, Fabregas played a ball through to Bendtner, his initial shot was blocked by Cahill, but Bendtner picked up the rebound, fired it goalwards, but O'Brien deflected the ball this time, making the save for Al Habsi quite comfortable. Bolton weren't offering much of an attacking threat but Diouf was in space far too often. At this point, Greg, who had yet to pay Trev for his match ticket, made an ominous offer for the £39 ticket. 'If we lose, I'll give you £20 for it, if we win I'll give you £50 for it.' Deal.
Within minutes, Greg looked to have made himself a nice wager. Clichy took a throw in next to his own corner flag, tried to play the ball to a crowded Flamini, who in turn tried to play his way out of trouble, but was dispossessed by McCann, Diouf touched the ball to Taylor, whose shot deflected past Almunia via the heels of Gallas. The skipper subsequently read the riot act, Flamini and Clichy were the culprits of overplaying in inury time at St. Andrews, and again took leave of their senses. There are times and places for playing your way out of trouble, Flamini and Clichy seem to have trouble choosing the right times. Like I said, we are a team slow to learn our lessons. The game became slightly fractious, a frustrated lunge saw Fabregas booked. Yet McCann would commit his fifth foul in the first half seconds later with no punishment. Bolton sensed our agitation and who else put Kevin Davies piled into the back of Senderos with a trademark swipe. Toure dared to express frustration and was immediately booked in the current three week, 'let's show respect to referees' trend. Yet in the wake of Diaby's tackle, Campo was straight in the referee's face and was not cautioned. Foy was woefully out of his depth and making a series of dreadful decisions. Bolton's ball boys refused to return the ball to Arsenal players for the remainder of the game. Matthew Taylor then made a mocking gesture towards Toure, shaking his hands as if to intimate that Toure was losing his nerve, a cheeky tongue was poked out to supplement. I would like to say a very public, Nelson Muntzesque 'HA HA!' at Matty Taylor at this point. I hope those tactics work for you in the Championship son.
For the first ten minutes of the second half, frustration turned to acceptance as Bolton toyed with us. None of Arsenal's clearances were reaching our own players and a sense of quiescent surrender was in the air. Almunia made a pointblank save from a Cahill header (the referee demonstrating his pathetic weakness by not awarding one of the more obvious fouls in history) as Bolton threatened to carve us apart. Adebayor and Walcott were introduced. At this point, your writer sat slumped in the upper tier enquiring what the point of bringing Ade on was. The game was lost and big games against Liverpool were to follow. But a faint geyser of glory would arrive on the hour mark. Fabregas' corner was flicked on by that irritating twat Campo and captain Billy was on hand to volley home. I've heard nothing but pathos heavy crap about Gerrard single handedly winning a European Cup Final because he grabbed the first goal in a three goalcomeback. I look forward to Gallas receiving similar column inches appraising his incredible defiance in the face of insurmountable adversity.
Bolton looked nervy (cue shaky hand gesture) as Arsenal piled forwards. Adebayor's nuisance factor and Walcott's pace frightened Bolton as we laid waste to the possession stats. Fabregas found a slide rule pass to Adebyor in the area, he flicked the ball into the path of the marauding Flamini, his shot was palmed away to Al Habsi, Cahill lunged to dispossess Hleb, but mistimed his challenge and Arsenal had a penalty. van Persie stepped up and smashed it low and hard past Al Habsi. The ball was instantly retrieved as Arsenal knew that a draw would not be enough. There was time a plenty to grab the winner and Megson instantly made a defensive substitution. Walcott received the ball on the right hand side, bombed past a shaky looking Taylor to the byline and pulled back for van Persie who blasted high and wide. The South Stand was a sea of heads in hands. With five minutes remaining, Hleb danced to the byline and pulled back for van Persie again, but he could not get his body around the ball enough to wrap it home.
The clock ticked agonisingly onto 90 minutes as Clichy found an avenue to feed Hleb in the area, he pulled the ball back to Cesc Fabregas who miscued his shot. It hit McCann and rolled goalwards, before clipping JLloyd Samuel's ankle and roll steadily over the line. At this point, the gentleman next to me, who had been grinding my gears all game, had suddenly become my best friend as we shook one another maniacally. Seats were snapped and carefully crafted hairstyles were seized upon. (The current Gallas tribute, heavily gelled mohawk that adorns my own crowning glory was inconsiderately ruffled beyond recognition). Never had a chorus of '2-0 and you fucked it up' been so delicious, as the idiots in the South East corner with their annoying monotone drum were dumbstruck. As the final whistle sounded, Greg gleefully emptied his wallet. You've never seen a man so happy to lose a wager.
It may be too late for our own title charge, but the momentum this victory will have given us could be priceless. We have to let Chelsea and United know that any slip ups will be punished. Questions have been asked of our character and the team had begun to doubt themselves, this could be a massive filip for us. For my part, I have read Paul's Asda piece and, despite not being the superstitious sort, I conciously dressed in the same garb that I had worn in Milan. A line from Eddie Floyd's 'Knock on Wood' comes to mind, 'I'm not superstitious about you, but I can't take no chances.' We listened hopefully to the radio on the way home, praying for Villa to do us a favour. But the instant Ronaldo graced the game with his masterpiece, I reached for the MP3 player. Radiohead is an infinitely more pleasurable listening experience than United slaughtering Villa. A line in of their newer songs, Videotape, seemed to sum the situation up perfectly. The song's concluding mantra, 'No matter what happens next, we shouldn't be afraid. Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen.'LD.
Date:Sunday March 30 2008
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