Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday December 14 2008
Twelve hours after stepping off the plane from Porto at a rainswept Stansted, I found myself walking towards Queensland Road at 04.45 on a Saurday morning gripped with an icy rain. The salubrious riverside and enveloping port houses of Oporto were to be instantly replaced by a stadium that is surrounded by an industrial swamp. Middlesbrough has to be my least favourite away match of the season, for a stadium that is only thirteen years old, it has dated remarkably quickly, along with Leicester, Derby and Southampton, it is a character void, an identikit erection. It is also literally next to a swamp and they have the cheek to name it the Riverside, I can only hope that the annointers of that title have a particularly dashing sense of irony.
The team line up was rather predictable, with Arsenal absolutely shorn of widemen, Denilson and Diaby manned either flank with Song lining up besides Fabregas. Djourou's recent good form saw him deservedly picked ahead of the flaky Silvestre. The consensus from the last two matches from those sitting around me with regards to our centre half pairing appears to be 'who partners Djourou?' Arsenal took ten minutes to get their attacking rhythm going, but crunching challenges in the early stages from the impressive Song and Djourou impressed the away side onto the game physically. It was a flowing move which did set Arsenal's first chance, Adebayor, Diaby and Fabregas exchanged swift one touch passes to set up Robin van Persie, who dragged a right footed shot just wide with Huth snapping at his heels. It settled the Gunners and we saw a fleeting return to our swift, one touch play in the final third as opposed to the chin stroking pretension and contemplation that has irked us so this campaign. Adebayor was the next in the groove, using the elastic hips that serve his goal celebrations so well to slalom past two Boro challenges before selflessly teeing up Diaby who was lurking on the left, but he was blocked at the near post by Turnbull.
From the resulting corner, the seemingly portential breakthrough arrived, Cesc swung in a simple corner and Adebayor did not have to work terribly hard to find the space to stoop and head Arsenal into the lead from six yards. A goal so deliciously simple, you wondered if it really could have emanated from Arsenal's artistes. Turnbull was gripped with apprehension for every Gunners set piece thereafter. The next Fabregas delivery saw Boro panic and not clear their lines, the ball broke to Diaby in the area, but he tamely fired straight into the grateful arms of Ross Turnbull. With the away side well on top, a sucker punch caught Arsenal square on the jaw. Clichy's attempted clearance was charged down by Johnson and the ball broke kindly to Tuncay, he fired in a beautiful cross which Jeremie Aliadiere glanced past Almunia. Boro were reinvigorated by the goal and briefly jerked back into life, Adam Johnson saw a stray Clichy foot in the area and threw himself to the ground. It was a dive (what's that? Johnson's English? Oh, well I guess there was contact thenw asn't there?) but the referee might easily have been enticed to give it with the foot out and a baying home crowd astride his back.
The yellows weathered the storm and nearly reassumed the ascendancy on the counter attack, Fabregas searched out the intelligent run of Adebayor in the right channel, he sent a low first time cross towards van Persie which just evaded the Dutchman's stride. Half time and it was difficult to see how we were not leading. The second half saw Boro pegged back into their own half and relying on the guile of Tuncay and the pace of Aliadiere on the counter attack. It was a tactic that nearly proved fruitful when Julio Arca arced a neat ball over the top of the Arsenal rearguard, Downing outstripped Sagna for pace, but Gallas was swiftly across to force Downing into a volley to Almunia's nearpost which the Spaniard comfortably beat out. Emmanuel Eboue warmed up on the touchline next to the away contingent and was given a rousing reception, a gesture he humbly accepted. The song 'He comes from Africa, he's better than Kaka' might have been ever so slightly hyperbolic however. The away side were warming up and set up camp in Boro's half, with Song admirably marshalling any counter attacks and Denilson beavering away impressively on the right. Riggott and Huth worked tirelessly to enervate the Arsenal bombardment. van Persie wormed himself into a pocket of space in the penalty area, Diaby found his intelligent run in the channel, the erstwhile Dutchman held off the attention of Riggott but just screwed the ball wide.
Fabregas was the architect of the next opportunity, swaggering past two Boro challenges and feeding Adebayor, he worked himself into some space but his left foot shot deflected just over the bar. Just as Arsenal's momentum gathered, a series of Boro players appeared to go down mysteriously off the ball, with no challenge in sight, burgling us of our stride. The final flurry came as the clock ominously struck 90, Denilson cleverly slipped a ball to Bendtner in the channel and Bendtner fired straight at Turnbull from an acute angle with Adebayor screaming for the cutback. Wenger said in the week that he felt Bendtner was trying too hard and pressuring himself, that comment was given credence in that moment. In the end Boro had just enough grit, guile and no little Machiavelian mischief to hold onto the draw. Arsenal showed signs of their swift interplay in the final thrid of the pitch, but the equaliser appeared to drain the belief and conviction from the side. The lack of width is also incredibly evident and makes it slightly easier for sides like Boro to squeeze our play. Denilson's endeavour on the right was admirable and I believe he is becoming a better player by the week, but he is not a right winger. With Denilson, Song and Djourou settling nicely into the side, the wide areas surely have to be the place where Wenger most urgently seek redress in January. Rosicky is a goner, Nasri's legs seem to have been forged in the same factory and Walcott is out until March. There was some consolation on way home, the Travel Club run a prediction competition which was won by yours truly, so a signed shirt to add to the collection. I hope come January, Wenger will be just as eager in the quest for signatures.LD.
Date:Sunday December 14 2008
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