The final furlong of the season was now in sight, the Gunners were still sitting pretty at the head of the Premiership table. Predictions of our imminent demise had drifted into white noise and Arsenal faced the unusual scenario of being tipped to win the League. An early kick off at Eastlands gave Arsenal the opportunity to put the pressure on United and move five points clear, albeit having played a game more. The Gunners got off to the ideal start when Sagna bombed down the right and cut back for Adebayor who continued his supreme scoring run with a tap in. If the first goal was scruffy, the second was a work of art, Diaby angling the ball to Clichy on the left flank; his pinpoint cross was headed down by Adebayor and Eduardo chested down and hooked in a smart overhead volley. But with Arsenal coasting, Clichy switched off on his own touchline and was dispossessed by Corluka. He cut back to Gelson to half the deficit. For those that are interested, Gallas offered an arm around Clichy`s shoulder and a consoling word. Just for future reference that one! However, Arsenal made the game safe in the dying minutes, another Adebayor goal, this time from Fabregas` cut back made it 3-1 and the Gunners were flying.
The title pendulum would swing deliciously our way the next weekend, Citeh defeating United at Old Trafford, leaving Arsenal the opportunity to go five clear at the top with a home win against Blackburn. The home side flew out of the traps on a chilly Monday night; Philippe Senderos heading home a Fabregas corner after only four minutes. But a glimpse of things to come arrived as Arsenal looked nervy and tentative thereafter, the enormity of the significance of any victory clearly getting to them. But it was Adebayor again who would make the game safe in the final minute, smashing home Hleb`s cross. Five points clear, and for the first and only time during the entire season, I thought we`d win the league. This feeling could not be altered by a 4-0 tonking at Old Trafford in the F.A. Cup. With a European encounter with Milan on the horizon and the league challenge gathering momentum, coupled with the fact that United were looking to prove a point saw Arsenal stop just short of throwing the game. An early goal from Rooney and an own goal from Gallas in the first twenty five minutes put ManUre on the way to victory. Nani added a third before half time, before a cowardly challenge from Emmanuel Eboue saw the away side reduced to ten men. Having just been paid by Arsenal to play in the African Nations for six weeks, Eboue decided to bail and leave his team mates to twist in the wind, any remaining good will towards the Ivorian from Gooners disappeared with him down the Old Trafford tunnel. Darren Fletcher added a fourth for United and were it not for a sterling display from Jens Lehmann, United might have reached double figures. Nani irked several Arsenal players with his ball juggling antics towards the end, though it troubled me little in truth. Nani was lucky to escape censure for a petulant kick on Hoyte, whilst Gallas was equally fortunate that the F.A. ignored his nibble at Nani`s shins off the ball. The mouth watering first leg tie against A.C. Milan at the Grove followed. The Rossoneri defended resolutely throughout, but looked to tire in the last twenty minutes; the final whistle saw most of their players barely mobile. The match finished 0-0 with Adebayor agonisingly heading Walcott`s cross against the crossbar from three yards out in injury time. But with Milan clearly lacking legs, Arsenal knew where they could hurt the Italians in the Second Leg. The UK Press, as ever, were not nearly smart enough to spot it and promptly wrote Arsenal off. Just the way we like it!
Next up was a midday trip to Birmingham City and a chance to extend our lead at the top to eight points, with United not kicking off until 5.15pm at St. James` Park. The match, as it turned out, would be one of the most wretched I have ever seen in my time supporting Arsenal. After four minutes, an awful, late high challenge from Martin Taylor left Eduardo grounded. Taylor was promptly sent off. On the pitch I spotted Fabregas, closest to the tackle, instantly put his head in his hands and beckon the medical staff to hurry. One by one I could see Hleb walk away with his face buried in his hands, Fabregas put his hand over his mouth, Adebayor dropped to his knees and prayed. Texts began to flood through to us in the Railway End that Sky adjudged the images too distressing to show. The words 'David Busst` were on lips all around us as we discussed the prospect of Eduardo ever playing again. He still had not even been strecthered off the pitch. We would later learn that it was only Gary Lewin`s quick thinking and Gilberto`s Portuguese linguistics that prevented Eduardo losing his foot altogether. Understandably, Arsenal found it hard to get involved in the game and James McFadden`s free kick gave Birmingham the lead. With Eduardo`s leg in tatters and the squad still grieving the recent loss of Bacary Sagna`s brother, Wenger would have his work cut out lifting the team. But the Gunners were propelled forward onto the teenage shoulders of Theo Walcott; firstly he prodded an Adebayor flick on past Maik Taylor. Then, imbued with confidence, he picked up the ball on the right, sauntered into the box, cutting in on his left foot and burying the ball past Taylor. Adebayor contrived to miss an easy one on one with Bendtner placed for a tap in; the feud between the two had been allowed to harm the greater good. Arsenal switched off and became complacent in the final minutes, lamentably, as a Brum cross fell to the feet of Flamini in his own area in injury time, he laid the ball off to Clichy who unforgivably let his senses desert him and Parnaby stole in, Clichy won the challenge but the referee pointed to the spot. McFadden buried it as an enraged Gallas looked on from the touchline, putting his foot through an advertising hoarding. The gentle arm around Clichy`s shoulder at Eastlands had not worked. Gallas sat disconsolately on the turf at the final whistle, hacks would have you believe it was the worst act ever committed by a footballer and most Arsenal fans have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. In the away end nobody even commented, that was not the case in 2001 when Henry stopped just short of assaulting Graham Poll after the final whistle. Birmingham City acted poorly in the aftermath, painting 'Tiny` Taylor as the victim, fraudulently claiming he had visited Eduardo in hospital (he had not). After the game, Wenger raged that Taylor should never be allowed to play again, once he had recollected himself, he retracted his comments in a matter of hours. This discretionary act did not matter to Birmingham who criticised Wenger in a lamentable PR war. Stephen Kelly, James McFadden, Alex McLeish and David Gold lined up to lambaste Wenger (who did not respond once I might add), whilst Seba Larsson accused him of being a "bad loser" (the match was drawn) and that Arsenal "were in a bad mood all game." Yeah, well, I hope you were cracking open the champagne last Sunday after your relegation to the Championship Seb, you deserve it my friend.
February began excellently, with the title tidal wave swinging firmly in our favour. Defeat in the F.A. Cup looked like a conscious decision from the manager who, prior to the match, admitted he would rather lose the match than draw and clutter the fixture list with another match. A decent showing and a clean sheet against Milan left us with good prospects of progression in the Champions League. But the second McFadden crashed that penalty in; I knew we would not win the league. It felt every bit as final as Keown`s own goal at the Reebok, Nayim`s lob in Paris and Mickey Owen`s cartwheel in Cardiff. The psychological trauma of Eduardo`s injury, coupled with the fact we had lost another attacking player proved too much for our now threadbare squad to cope with. The last minute penalty knocked the wind firmly from our sails and one could see that Gallas sensed that, hence his visible frustration afterwards. To this day I do not see how a man sitting on the ground is such an earnest crime as it has been subsequently painted to be. If that really had a psychological effect on the squad, then they were weak mentally and were never going to win the league anyway. It`s amazing how a situation can be blown out of all proportion, for those of us who were there, the incident drew no comment, but the media gaze has a way of moulding people`s viewpoints and this whole nonsense has got way out of hand. All in all, the 23rd of February was the fateful day, the day we blew it. Things would never be the same again. Though we need not have been so worried about the Eduardo incident, 'tiny` Taylor went on to make a full recovery.LD.
Player of the Month: Bacary Sagna.