Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday October 5 2008
My alarm woke me up at 3.30am as the sound of the swirling wind struck up a howling symphony against my window. Travelling with the early hours literati of drunks, waifs and strays made for an interesting journey to the ground to pick up the coach. One of the wonders of a trip to the North East is that you meet the same collection of local Croydon celebrities on your way home. After a long, long journey, most of it spent with my head lolloping about against the window getting that horrible car sleep, that isn't really sleep at all. More your body's way of taking the piss and ensuring that you look like a dribbling goldfish for four hours.
We arrived into a wet, windswept Stadium of Light at around 2.30pm. If the soaking rceeived outside wasn't sufficient, a group of twats in the away concourse decided to soak all within a twenty yard radius with pints of beer during a raucous rendition of the Eduardo song. If any of you happen to be reading this, nobody thought you were a bunch of jovial lads having a jolly jape, we all thought you were fucking twats. Song came in for Nasri as Wenger sought to make threatening use of his width with van Persie and Walcott on the flanks and Fabregas playing a notably advanced role. But on the unctuous Stadium of Light surface, the Mackems gameplan was clear from the outset as they got numbers behind the ball in an attempt to enervate Arsenal's attack and punting long balls for Cisse when they got the opportunity. In fact, I can't ever remember seeing a home side play so defensively in my time watching Arsenal. But it was working in the first half, particularly with Walcott, his selection an attempt to afford us width, having one of his worst games in an Arsenal shirt. His passing and control were abysmal, which can happen sometimes, but his workrate in chasing the ball back was unacceptable. In fact, he nearly gifted Sunderland an early goal when his woefully misplaced pass back to Toure found Djibril Cisse in the area, but Almunia was out quickly to spread himself and deny the Frenchman with a smart block.
Sunderland were defending in a resolute fashion and the game was made even more scabrous by possibly the most clueless referee of a terrible bunch in the Premiership. Lee Mason awarded eight yellow cards, only one of which was deserved for Adebayor's injury time handball. I cannot recall a bad tackle and when Clichy was booked in the first half for the world's most innocuous foul he set a precedent whereby every foul had to culminate in a caution. To be fair, he produced, Bendtner was booked for having the temerity to scowl at Chimbonda for kicking the ball away and Mason even lambasted Gallas at one point for fetching the ball from behind the goal in the dying minutes. The only player who really truly deserved a yellow card was Craig Gordon who, at one point, took in excess of sixty seconds to spot up a goal kick. The referee didn't even give a cursory tap of the watch. When Cisse went through in the last minute with Sunderland leading and was flagged offside, the Mackems striker curled the ball over the bar. The referee never acknowledged the lineman's flag and gave a goal kick. At this level of the game, officiating as we saw yesterday is simply not acceptable. Lee Mason is fairly new on the roster and be prepared for another Graham Poll because Mason does not half love a bit of attention.
Cisse lashed another shot goalwards from the edge of the box with Clichy making little attempt to track back and help his captain, leaving Gallas with two players to mark. Half time and most around me were frustrated, but I am always confident so long as we don't concede. Arsenal always create chances and nearly always score. Our principal problem was our predictability, I don't want to draft another peroration on Denilson or our midfield, but the Brazilian seems to be suffering at the moment and it's through no fault of his own. I simply do not know what his role is and I'm not sure he does. His most effective game this season was at Bolton, when Cesc, Song and Denilson were constantly interchanging positions and confusing Bolton offensively, as well as combining defensively to create a symbiosis Bolton could not live with. Yesterday the positional play was more defined, Song sat on the egde of our box, to great effect on the rare occasions Sunderland came forward, Fabregas was playing on the egde of Sunderland's box with Denilson sat in the centre circle and we looked impediment as a result. The net result was that we were much more predictable and without Eboue's ability to pop up all over midfield too, we were left wth Walcott predictably marooned out on the right. However, my point at half time to the naysayers was that, so long as we don't concede, there is always reason to be confident because I'd back Arsenal to score in even their most insipid display. So it proved, Walcott charged to the byline and hooked a ball back to van Persie, who smashed the ball home. But the linesman flagged for a goal kick which was a poor decision. I was right on top of the incident in the Metro FM Stand and it took a few seconds to realise what had been given. No Sunderland player appealed, Walcott's body was still in play when the contact was made with the ball.
Walcott made way soon after for Bendtner, who immediately made soemthing happen. Drifting in from the right he hooked an impressive ball into Adebayor, but was predictably crowded out. Another substitute, Samir Nasri, who came on in central midfield, also nearly made an instant impact. Bendtner once again played a neat through ball, Nasri took the ball in his stride through a sea of defenders but just couldn't get a true contact on the ball as he prodded it goalwards. He also left an instant mark on Jamie Collins in an aerial challenge that flattened the Welsh centre half. Nasri seems to have made it perfectly clear he won't be bullied. The first time Arsenal were able to play some neat football produced their best chance with nine minutes remaining. Adebayor shielded the ball and played in Bendtner at the edge of the box, the Dane clipped a beautifully measured balll over the top of the Sunderland rearguard which found van Persie perfectly in his stride, but Craig Gordon stood up well to block the effort. Then it was suckerpunch time.
Sunderland won a throw in on their left and Reid manouvered the ball infield to substitute Grant Leadbitter, Song chomped at his heels but having just been booked for a completely innocuous foul, was not in a position to commit a 'tactical foul' and Leadbitter let fly under pressure and the ball bounced in off the underside of the bar. It was a once in a lifetime strike, and unlike Geovanni's drive last week, it was contested and closed down. In the circumstances it's hard to see what could have been done about the goal bar Song taking the hit and getting sent off. Sunderland fans taunted with 'who are ya?' as we looked to be on the end of an incredibly unjust defeat. Sagna won a corner on the right, Gallas attempted to return the ball to the corner quickly only to be actively stopped by a Sunderland ball boy. van Persie swung in the corner and it was a case of pure desire and insatiable willpower as Cesc Fabregas rose in the air to thump home a fulminating header in the third minute of stoppage time. Cesc also wasn't intent on proscratinating with the celebration, urging his side back to the centre circle in search of a winner. Winner being the operative word for our coruscating Spaniard. Arsenal nearly did grab a winner too when another neat Bendtner through ball created panic as van Persie bore down on goal, Gordon spilled the ball, his nerves elucidated in the wintery rain. But at the final whistle, despite the tangible disappointment, it has to be considered a point gained. A game like this is hardly worth ruminating, Sunderland had a gameplan which they executed effectively, things did not really go our way. Had we been given the goal we earned and deserved on 52 minutes, I'd be sitting here talking of a professional away performance and a good win. Had Leadbitter's shot hit the underside of the bar and come out, we might also be doing the same. Had the referee not decided to book Song for an innocuous foul, he might never have got the shot away in the first place. Games like this happen and Sunderland won't give too much away at home this year. Comme ci comme ca.LD.
Date:Sunday October 5 2008
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