Without doubt my favourite day of the year, much before the cheap commercial showiness of Christmas, the anti climatic birthday, is the first day of the new football season. Watching everybody on the train resplendant in new replica shirts and tinted shades, wearing the kind of smiles that are awash with relief. As if we've all been collectively sucking in our bloated guts for three months as an attractive woman passes by, and now we've been able to breathe out. Acquaintances were renewed with the old crowd as we met at Holloway Road's Phibbers pub for brunch. Having spent my Friday evening in a Belgian bar sampling every beer under the sun, it was only right to bring my cultural flirting towards the Emerald Isles. A full fry up and two pints of Guinness for breakfast then.
We arrived into a sunkissed Grove just before kick off to the predictable news that Robin van Persie was not fit enough to start, well I suppose he is already one game into his seven game a season credit, no need to violate that expense account just yet. After Ramsey had looked understandably edgy in Arnhem, Emmanuel Eboue was selected in the holding role and Samir Nasri lined up on the left. Arsenal duly fed our early season optimism after just three minutes with a goal of aesthetic brilliance. Patiently probing with the ball, the Gunners put together a multi pass move which saw Clichy feed Denilson in the left channel, just as he had in Amsterdam last week, Denilson sauntered to the by line and cut the ball back for Samir Nasri to finish Pires style in the six yard area, opening his body out to neatly nudge past Scott Carson. It was a goal that could well have been forged by the triple entente of Cole, Henry and Pires.
The sense of assurance was palpable in the humid North London air as all and sundry felt a comfortable victory was on the cards. Nasri set Adebayor away down the left soon after, Ade raced to the byline and chipped a ball to the backpost which Walcott headed goalwards, only to be blocked by Paul Robinson's(not the flying potato) shoulder. The home side were moving forward with verve and confidence, like a snow lepoard stalking a mountain deer. William Gallas moved forward, a tentative Baggies defence stood off and Billy let fly with a rocket from thirty yards which flew just wide. Remember Sol Campbell at Fratton Park a few years back? Bendtner headed a Nasri corner just wide and Bacary Sagna got in on the act, Clichy's swinging cross was headed to the edge of the area by Barnettand Sagna's left foot volley was deflected just wide off of Meite. Another Nasri corner caused the Baggies problems as Adebayor headed goalwards and Sagna just couldn't nick the header in front of Carson. West Brom did reassert themselves and created an opportunity of their own. Carson's long kick down the middle caused us the sort of problems we should probably get used to if Wenger won't sign a dominant centre half, Miller flicked the ball on and Kim Do Heon's shot was tipped wide by Almunia via a deflection from Djourou.
The second half was a decidedly more tetchy affair, with Arsenal failing to fully capitalise on their dominance in the first half. Four minutes into the second half, the Gunners had a lucky escape. Kim slipped a through ball into Ishmael Miller, whose physicality caused problems all afternoon, Djourou playing him onside, but Miller could only hit the ball straight at Almunia's legs. The rebound fell to James Morrison and his strike beat Almunia only to see Djourou shank the ball off the line. Gallas expressed his displeasure at Djourou's dallying in setting the offside trap, but I wouldn't construe it as any lack of bonhomie as Ihave seen suggested by some. Defenders shout at one another all the time, Gallas is the captain and if somebody doesn't do their job, it's up to him to say so. No big deal. Arsenal did appear to take the warning as a hint though and seconds later, Nasri majestically ambled inside from touchline and delivered an exquisite slide rule passfor Adebayor to tun onto. The Togonator ran through on goal and couldn't quite open his body out sufficiently to bend the ball into the net as an absolute sitter drifted wide of the post. Incidentally, Bedntner was free for a tap in to his right. If you're demanding a six figure weekly salary, you put those away. As I said in pre season, that's a rod Ade decided to make for his own back and he has to accept the consequential ire, which he bore heavily from the crowd following a piece of poor decision making in the area. Nasri on the other hand,was warming the cockels of the home support, striking up an instant rapport with Clichy, trusting the diminutive left back's ability on the ball and finding space between full back and centre half, making him very difficult to pick up. An incident towards the end of the game where he tracked back and fought off Brunt to win the ball back for his team. Let's hope this wasn't a Glenn Helder sort of debut.
Denilson also had an outstanding match, playing the role of both creative pivot and defensive terror. I felt Eboue was too idle in the role of destroyer, with Kim dropping off into space behind Miller and seldom being picked up. Eboue is a player who spends too long rocking back on his heels and not on his toes to play this role.It was Denilson who was harrying Baggies midfielders, using an intelligence that belies his years to read passes and make the interceptions. Of course we were already aware of his economy with the ball. If there is a space up for grabs in central midfield, Denilson took a huge stride towards it yesterday. But our inability to defend the long ball through the middle was all too evident yesterday as Ishamel Miller
caused us problems. With all due respect to the young man, we will be facing better and more experienced strikers in this campaign.
van Persie and Toure came on to try and steady and vary a stagnating and nervy ship. Toure's introduction as a right winger may have been an attempt to stiffen defensively, but it was one of the poorer substitutions of the Wenger era. Toure predictably looked lost (and a little chubby it must be said) and the threat from the right was ostensibly over.
van Persie did add a new threat, Adebayor once again found space in the left channel, spooned the ball up to the backpost, but van Persie could not get the requisite power on the header to beat Carson. A piece of van Persie magic nearly confirmed the result with five minutes left, collecting Denilson's cut back, dancing his way through a three point turn in the area, but runing his chance by trying to curl the ball in with the outside of his left foot when a right footed strike would surely have scored. If you do not trust your right foot from eight yards Robin, it means you need to work on it. You know, when you can tear yourself away from the treatment table that is. In the end, one goal was enough to open the season with a victory. In a way, this win was the polar opposite of the opening day victory against Fulham last season.
There are plenty of positives, Nasri's debut was as good as I have seen for some time, Denilson looks to be carrying his pre season form into the new campaign, Clichy and Sagna still look impenetrable and we still have players to come back from injury. The first half display was one of swagger and poise, but the second half was slightly more nervy, we lacked some sharpness in the final third which will come in time. However, some problems persist, Almunia is still far too slow off of his line, the long ball through the middle causes us all sorts of problems and we van Persie isn't fit after a lactic acid sapping one game. Let's hope we can get a few players back next week and a few bodies in before deadline day.LD.