December began with a tricky trip to Villa Park for an evening kick off. With United having won earlier in the day, the pressure was firmly on. Cesc Fabregas was injured in the defeat in Andalusia, so Lasagne Diarrohea (who I think has ensured himself a hot reception on his return to the Grove next year) started the game. His performance was outstanding, as was the display from the whole team. Despite going 1-0 behind to a Craig Gardner goal. The Gunners were undeterred and produced the sort of champagne football that has become their trademark. Matty Flamini's half volley levelled the scores, before Diarra dispossessed Bouma, played in Sagna on the right and Adebayor calmly headed his cross into the bottom corner. The second half was a different prospect, as Villa commendably fought their way back into the game. They could not contain the peerless Alex Hleb, who was enjoying a 99% pass completion rate when John Carew's nasty challenge gashed Hleb's shin. Arsenal held onto the win, showing a healthy cocktail of caviar and bangers and mash.
A midweek schlep to Newcastle was next up, cheers for arranging that Premier League. Adebayor chested down Eboue's cross (eureka! That was it, that was his assist before Derby) and swivelled and smashed a smart volley into the top corner. With Fat Sam's Newcastle in dire straits, their superb fans booing their every movement and hounding their new manager out, Arsenal looked destined to eek out a comfortable victory. But the Gunners really stopped playing, and were punished by virtue of Steven Taylor's equaliser. Arsenal now had a four point cushion at the summit of the Premiership. But the feeling that it should have been six was palpable. That feeling was magnified four days alter, when another sojourn to the North East (thanks for arranging that Premier League) when Arsenal were awful. Toure fouled Aliadiere (Senderos baiters might like to look at penalties conceded this season and see how many Toure was culpable for) and Stewart Downing tucked it away. Arsenal never looked likely to come back into it, Eduardo was withdrawn at half time, and Tuncay put the result beyond doubt. Rosicky's 95th minute effort was reduced to a mere consolation. I sky plussed the season review they are currently screening on Arsenal TV, last night they analysed August and I am watching it as I type, what the strikes me from the highlights is just how much we came to miss the directness and penetration of Rosicky. I think it no coincidence that Hleb looked much less effective once Rosicky hobbled off into the sunset.
Next up was a low intensity affair with Steaua Bucharest, Robin van Persie came back into the side, goals from Diaby and Bendtner put Arsenal on the way to victory, before a fantastic long range strike from some Romanian geezer (can't recall the name, sorry) ensured a nervous finale. Sevilla's win over Prague confined us to second place in the group and we were drawn to play A.C. Milan in the knock out rounds. Chelsea were next up at the Grove and once again our title credentials would bare stiff examination. A scrappy encounter was settled by a William Gallas header (who else?). Almunia made a good late save from Shevchenko as he began to prove his mettle. The game was marked by some unseemly incidents, the heroic Terry lunged in on a grounded Fabregas before hobbling off with a broken foot after Eboue's challenge. Fabregas' late foul on Cashley saw a fracas between two players who can barely disguise their distaste for one another.
A tough trip to Ewood Park in the Carling Cup followed. Diaby volleyed in Bendtner's cross in the opening minutes, before Eduardo's calm finish from Song's pass. But with the youngsters coasting and Diarra proving himself to be real quality, Rovers got back into the game with two Santa Cruz goals. A poor two footed challenge from Denilson saw the young side reduced to ten men going into extra time. But the arrival of Eduardo would be elucidated as he produced another cool finish to give Arsenal the lead. Superbly marshalled by Alex Song, the young defence held out. Everything was looking rosy in Arsenal's garden as that lot from down the road arrived at the Grove. But Tottenham looked organised and collected, with Jamie O'Hara catching the eye in particular. The Gunners stumbled into the lead in truth, Fabregas' delightful backheel found Adebayor, who continued his vendetta against Paul Robinson to make it 1-0. But the warning signs were there when Robbie Keane smashed a close range effort against the crossbar. Seconds later, Keane linked up with Berbatov, who smashed an unstoppable equaliser past Almunia. Kolo Toure would then foul Keane in the box to give Tottenham a penalty and a chance to take the lead. But Manuel Almunia beat out Keane's weak effort. Seventy seconds later, Nicklas Bendtner came on, ran from the touchline to the penalty area and headed Fabregas' corner past Robinson tosnatch victory for Arsenal. The rendition of Merry Xmas Everybody had never felt so raptuous.
A stifling draw against Pompey on Boxing Day would see Arsenal surrender top spot. Rosicky missing a late sitter. But three days later, my mates and I listened intently on the coach as West Ham defeated United at Upton Park to give Arsenal the chance to reclaim top spot by winning their evening match at Goodison Park. But it got off to a poor start when Yakubu gave the Toffees the lead. But two Eduardo goals from nowhere put the away side into an undeserved lead, particularly as both goals had more than a whiff of handball about them. Nevertheless, Wenger had predicted Eduardo wouldbe Arsenal's secret weapon in the second half of the season. Right on cue in game number 20, the Crozilian had arrived. A shocking challenge from Bendtner made holding onto the lead that little bit harder as he received his marching orders. But a mix up between Yobo and Howard let Adebayor in for 3-1. Arteta was sent off before Rosicky put the seal on a fantastic victory.
December was a very testing month, van Persie's return was a false dawn as he picked up a calf problem. The flowing football really disappeared after the first half at Villa Park, but the Gunners responded impressively to their first defeat. Beating Chelsea and Tottenham in a week will ensure a Merry Christmas for any Gooner. But Arsenal were showing their nasty side (Bendtner and Denilson going overboard on that score) as Wenger's decision to rest his players for Champions League games and effectively surrender top spot in the group was vindicated. Players such as Eduardo and Bendtner were beginning to show their worth, as was Diarra who filled in admirably in the absence of Fabregas and Hleb. What a shame he couldn't exercise more patience. With Burnley, Tottenham and A.C. Milan on the horzon in the Cups and Arsenal sitting on top of the league, the winter chill could not disguise the fact that the season was just hotting up.LD.
Player of the Month: Manuel Almunia.