Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Tuesday May 20 2008
With Britain in the midst of a 'credit crunch` so came squeaky bum time for the Gunners, a month of malingering left Arsenal in do or die circumstances as we took on Liverpool three times and Manchester United once in our next four games. A mouth watering Champions League Quarter Final first leg tie with Liverpool at the Grove was first on the agenda. Arsenal took an early lead, yet another fruitful Cesc Fabregas corner (it`s amazing how many times I have typed that sentence in the last few days) was met with a firm Emmanuel Adebayor header half way through the first half. But Arsenal took leave of their senses; Flamini lost the ball in central midfield and Gerrard motored past Toure and put in a low cross for Dirk Kuyt to grab a precious away goal for the Mickeys. The Gunners laid siege on the Liverpool goal in the second half, but were met with a well drilled backline, marshalled expertly by Jamie Carragher. However, the home side were denied a stonewall penalty when Kuyt dragged Hleb to the floor in the penalty area. Jose Reina spilled Hleb`s cross to the feet of Cesc Fabregas, the Catalonian prodded the ball goalwards, only for Nicklas Bendtner to unwittingly block it on the line.
A much less intense league game at home to Liverpool followed. Rafa Benitez predictably played a shadow side, but Arsene Wenger demonstrated a lack of belief in the title charge by following suit. The result was a game that was essentially written off by both managers as an inconvenience. The first half certainly had the feeling of two sides going through the motions before Peter Crouch gave Liverpool the lead, latching onto Benayoun`s flick on before volleying the ball past Almunia. Nicklas Bendtner responded by heading home yet another successful Fabregas set piece, before Cesc himself was again denied a clear penalty when hauled down by Lucas in the box. Some poor finishing from Andriy 'fat Paris Hilton` Voronin spared us our first home defeat of the season. The much more serious issue of a quarter final second leg at Anfield followed. The Gunners started brilliantly and took the lead when Diaby controlled Hleb`s through ball and smashed it past Reina after 14 minutes. But a familiar theme of Arsenal`s domination being undercut by defensive weakness was to follow when Senderos let Sami Hyypia get away from him from a Gerrard corner to head home the equaliser. Torres` sublime turn and finish from the edge of the box looked to have won the tie for Liverpool. But with four minutes remaining, Theo Walcott picked the ball up on the edge of his own area and ran relentlessly forwards, first Riise, then Gerrard, then Mascherano were left trailing in his wake, Jamie Carragher was shrugged aside as Theo manoeuvred into the penalty, cutting the ball back for Adebayor to make amends for an earlier miss by putting Arsenal ahead on away goals. The Anfield Road End had not finished celebrating when a long punt forward from Liverpool`s centre found Babel, who looked to have been pulled down in the area by Kolo Toure. The Gunners had committed the cardinal sin of losing concentration after scoring a late goal and Gerrard made no mistake from the spot. Babel broke away to seal a 4-2 victory in injury time as Arsenal hearts were snapped in half, as crudely and suddenly as a Croatian striker`s shin bone.
Arsenal were left to pick up the pieces at Old Trafford four days later. Knowing anything less than a win would all but guarantee a trophyless season. The Gunners moved into the lead early in the second half, van Persie whipped in a wicked cross from the left and Adebayor bundled the ball in with his arm. Rio Ferdinand came incredibly close to extending our lead when he toe poked Clichy`s cross against his own post. But a Gallas handball gave United a penalty which Ronaldo despatched. With seventeen minutes left, Evra performed an admirable dying swan impression under a non existent challenge from Gilberto, which the referee duly punished. With all and sundry expecting another Ronaldo master blaster, Hargreaves curled home a cute effort to end Arsenal`s season. Wayne Rooney`s handball in the area was not penalised in the final minute as Arsenal fell to defeat. The travelling Gooners eschewed any baiting from the Surrey Mancs by staying behind for twenty five minutes after the game with a continuous rendition of 'we love you Arsenal` before United`s thuggish stewards forcibly removed us. How ironic that United would bitch and moan about the Stamford Bridge stewards just two weeks later.
A routine victory against relegation threatened Reading followed as Arsenal embarked on a series of dead rubber encounters. Adebayor expertly controlled Toure`s through ball for the first, before stroking the ball into the bottom corner. Gilberto added a second with a deflected shot from twenty five yards. Arsenal could have run up a cricket score, but chose not to, it was all pretty academic anyway. A Monday night trip to Derby finished our month off, Bendtner capitalised on a Moore error to make it 1-0, before McEveley poked home Savage`s free kick, before van Persie volleyed a Toure cross home to give Arsenal a half time lead. Adebayor came on at half time for the perennially injured van Persie, and immediately made an impression, taking Derby fans` mocking to heart. Walcott`s cut back saw Eboue horribly mess up an open goal, fortunately Ade was on hand to finish. Earnshaw threatened a Derby reprieve, but Walcott`s run and curling shot made it 4-2, before Adebayor added two more- both goals punctuated by comedy dance routines, to give the Gunners a more respectable 6-2 victory. It gave Adebayor his thirtieth goal of the season and capped off a fine campaign from the Togonator. But it also meant ten per cent of Derby`s Premiership goals this season came against us.
April really was the crystallization of our problems, having taken the lead three times in the Champions League tie against Liverpool, we lost it. In fact, we lead the tie for a total of fourteen minutes in between those three crucial goals. The mental clarity and experience to see out a lead again deserted us at Old Trafford, consigning our league campaign to the dustbin. Shorn of Bacary Sagna, the back four lacked cohesion, particularly with an out of sorts Toure bafflingly playing right back, a position in which he never once looked comfortable. We did however, see Theo Walcott emerge from the shadows and into the forefront of our attacking play. But as with Birmingham and Cardiff a year earlier, his potentially match winning contribution was to be overshadowed by some poor defending. We knew it was over and it never really began, but in our hearts, it was so real.LD.
Player of the Month: Gael Clichy.
Date:Tuesday May 20 2008
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