Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday May 13 2008
As with last summer, I will be looking at each individual month of the season and reviewing them in kind, I was going to begin with a player of the season article, but in truth, I haven`t made my mind up who that is yet. If ever there was a crystallisation of our improvement on the last campaign, it is the wealth of candidates for such an honour. Last year Gilberto was the clear winner, followed by Cesc, Clichy was his usual consistent self. Beyond that there were no real candidates. Anyway, I digress. The first two thirds of this series promises to be a carefree saunter down memory lane. The last third, well, perhaps a torturous scurry.
Following the sale of sciatica riddled Henry, the doom mongers were out in full force. Eduardo and Bacary Sagna were bought in and the experts deemed them insufficient to replace a fading star. The signing of Lassana Diarra was completed on deadline day. The team would answer the detractors in their own sweet time, but one question would require an immediate answer. Who would replace Henry as club captain? Gilberto Silva, who had done a sterling job in Henry`s absence in the preceding campaign, was widely tipped to keep the armband. But Wenger took his time, handing the armband between Toure, Gallas and Senderos in pre season in an attempt to spread the sense of responsibility. But eyebrows were raised when the honour was awarded to William Gallas, a winner and a defender of experience and steely determination. Gilberto Silva found out about this decision on Arsenal`s official website, which was poor form from the manager in truth. Gallas affirmed that Arsenal, far from being cut adrift in the wake of Henry`s departure, were ready to challenge for the title. With Henry gone, the gaze of expectation fixed on van Persie, who would be expected to supply the ammunition. He too drew an audible snigger from the press room when he affirmed that Arsenal were playing for first place.
The Gunners closed ranks and, led by Gallas, stated their intentions, beating Paris Saint Germain and Inter Milan- courtesy of a van Persie wonder strike- to lift the inaugural Emirates Cup. Days later they defeated Ajax Amsterdam to win the Amsterdam Tournament. Alex Hleb was tried in a role just off a lone striker and Emmanuel Eboue started on the right hand side of midfield. A marker for the season had been set down. However, just minutes into the new season, the cautious optimism evaporated. Jens Lehmann slipped in his own area, allowing David Healy to steal in and give Fulham an early lead at the Emirates. Arsenal were again chasing the game at home to opposition we should have been beating comfortably, we seemed to have learned nothing. But a foray forward from Kolo Toure got Arsenal a late penalty; van Persie stepped symbolically into Henry`s breach to smash the penalty home. 1-0 down to draw 1-1 at home, the early season sun could not disguise the sense of déjà vu. But this new Arsenal looked to be made of sterner stuff. In the last minute of injury time, Fabregas played a defence splitting pass to Alex Hleb, who calmly beat Niemi for a last gasp winner. A goal from a midfielder in the final minute, this Arsenal promised much more. At the final whistle, new skipper William Gallas ordered a huddle amongst the players, which would become something of a trademark in the autumn months. The future lay glimmering before us.
The young Gunners would demonstrate another string to their bow. The matter of a Champions League qualifier in Prague awaited; with Sparta skipper Tomas Repka pledging to kick our fancy dans into a bleeding submission. Instead, Hleb went eyeball to eyeball with the ageing centre half, who was then hilariously sent hobbling from the pitch, gesticulating and whingeing like a bitch following a crunching, yet perfectly legal, tackle from Cesc Fabregas. Under the watchful eye of Gallas, this Arsenal were in no mood to take shit from anyone. The Gunners bagged a two nil win in a gruelling encounter, a winding run from Clichy set up Fabregas for the first, and a fluid counter attack culminated in Alex Hleb grabbing a second in injury time. Another stark physical test in the shape of Blackburn Rovers away would further test Arsenal`s mettle. But they were not fazed by what Wenger described afterwards as Blackburn`s "taste for violence." Robin van Persie gave Arsenal an early lead in a game we controlled until Jens Lehmann made another catastrophic error, fumbling David Dunn`s speculative shot into the net. Ryan Nelsen was sent off for a professional foul late on, but the Gunners had been denied a deserved win. Questions abound surrounding the tenure of Mad Jens.
Sure enough, Arsene the diplomat told a gathered press that Lehmann had been "injured" during Germany`s friendly victory over England. Manuel Almunia was installed as our custodian for the home game with a resurgent Manchester City, marshalled expertly by Dunne and Richards. The Gunners squeezed through an incredibly tight affair, Cesc Fabregas` late rocket from a tight angle confining to City to their first defeat and first goal conceded all season. Earlier, Kasper Schmeichel had annoyingly inherited his father`s habit of saving penalties from Dutch Arsenal strikers when he beat out van Persie`s powerful spot kick. It was another game in which Arsenal had demonstrated a defiant attitude to amass the points. The month ended with a consummate second leg victory over Sparta Praha. Rosicky`s early goal put the contest to bed, before another Cesc Fabregas strike followed in the second half. Eduardo demonstrated the exact ability we had purchased him for by throwing himself onto a Walcott cross for a tap in. A 5-0 win on aggregate and a comfortable progression into the group stages.
In August, Arsenal were demonstrating new qualities. Hleb, Rosicky and Fabregas were scoring, Mathieu Flamini had given us an urgency and aggression in midfield, under the watchful stewardship of Gallas, we were thriving. Gallas instilled belief where there had been doubt, determination where there had been detriment. The Gunners were not being bullied anymore, with the pressure off and the media gaze elsewhere, Arsenal were delighting in proving everybody wrong. Bacary Sagna added calm and solidity to our defence, Fabregas was absolutely running the show, relishing the role as the newly crowned king of Highbury in the wake of Henry`s departure. In retrospect, it`s funny that Arsenal were spreading the goals around, Adebayor was injured in August and there was little indication that it would be his goals that would carry our title charge through the winter months. Media darlings Spurs were yet to win and found themselves rooted in 19th position, their challenge for the top four they had promised to deliver was nearly over. Arsenal`s challenge was only just beginning.
Player of the Month: Francesc Fabregas.
Date:Tuesday May 13 2008
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