Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday March 9 2009
Only in England can you leave for a game an hour and a half before kick off wearing sunglasses and return home shivering and soaking wet. But as with the malleability of the weather, Arsenal`s home games this season have been tests of endurance at times. It showed in the stands too with thousands of empty seats and tickets available right up until 12noon on the day of the game. It looked like a great many had elected for the 'opt out` option for season ticket holders, seeing as this game represented an extra cup credit which will thus be charged onto next season`s price. It`s quite amusing to hear supporters decry how we undervalue the F.A. Cup and yet show scant regard for it themselves. It should also serve as a warning to the club that it may take more than a price freeze to get bums back on seats. I feel I also must ask where all these people were who`d "love to go but can`t get tickets." In any case, those of us that did show up saw a much changed line up with Eduardo skippering the side as a reward for his courage over the last twelve months. Mainstays Denilson and Samir Nasri were given the day off to soak their feet in a tub of warm salted water, leaving the business to the likes of Vela, Song and Arshavin. Theo Walcott made the bench.
The game began surprisingly openly, Burnley electing to adopt Hull City`s trick in September of playing without a defined midfield. The visitors pressed us high up the pitch in our own half and on the edge of the Burnley box, but were happy to cede possession in the middle third and on the flanks. They deployed a sort of flying V formation in which the midfielders and forwards sat back when Arsenal had the ball, but broke together in unison when they wrested possession back. Arsenal forged the first chance of the match more by accident than design, as with Fulham and Sunderland, Burnley were quite happy to let Sagna have the ball on the touchline due to his awful crossing (probably the sole flaw in his game), on this occasion Sagna spooned his right wing cross so badly that it was inches away from creeping into Brian Jensen`s top corner. Chris Eagles was looking to give Kieran Gibbs a hard time, but the youngster dealt with the threat admirably and had another solid game. Eagles was removed at the beginning of the second half such was the quality of Gibbs on the day. The Gunners sensed an opening and they got it on 25 minutes, Andrey Arshavin may still be adjusting to life in England but one thing the man has shown in abundance in his short time here is an eye for a pass. The link between midfield and attack this season has diminished with the departure of Hleb and the injury to Rosicky; but Arshavin is showing class in that area of the pitch, it was he who picked the ball up just in from the left hand side and delivered a slide rule pass to Vela; the young Mexican allowed the ball to roll across his body before surging through on goal, with Gudjonsson`s hand firmly gripping his shirt and Steven Caldwell closing in, Vela lifted the ball beautifully over the onrushing Brian Jensen. In the Carling Cup exit to Burnley Arsenal had missed five on one ones with the same keeper, two of which Vela was culpable for. On each occasion, Vela, Bendtner and Randall had tried to get the ball under Jensen unsuccessfully. Whether Vela`s decision to chip was predetermined or instinctive is game for debate, but he showed massive intelligence either way and it will be good for him after some less than composed misses against Sunderland.
Arsenal looked to be in the mood and Alex Song lifted a beautiful flighted ball over the top of the Clarets back line, Eduardo tool it down in his stride only to be denied by a last ditch tackle from Graham Alexander. At this stage the heavens began to open and rumbles of thunder were audible, the wind picked up dramatically and made for hazardous conditions. The unctuous surface aided both sides` proclivity towards passing football; but the wind nearly helped Burnley to an equaliser as it grabbed hold of Eagles` corner, Diaby`s slight connection took the ball away from Fabianski and a melee ensued, but the Gunners eventually got the ball clear. Arsenal carved out another opportunity on the stroke of half time, Arshavin played the ball into Eduardo with his back to goal, the Crozilian`s impudent flick found Eboue in his stride, but his low shot was clawed away by Jensen. Half time and warm Bovril was the order of the day, with sunglasses tucked firmly away in pocket. Six minutes into the second half, Gooner cockles were warmed by a quite devastating goal. The ubiquitous Alex Song once again turned provider with another sumptuous chip into the penalty area, Eduardo had peeled away from his marker and found the top corner with a nonchalant first time volley with the outside of his heel. A quite intentional slice and a brilliant piece of improvisation, it was the kind of instinctive finish we had missed so desperately in the Fulham and Sunderland matches where the finishing was laboured and often panicked. The biggest compliment I can pay that goal is that I think that`s probably what Dennis Bergkamp would have done in the same position. Part of the reason I do not doubt Eduardo can come back to play at this level is that, much like Henrik Larsson, he was never the quickest player over the ground, his strengths were his movement and his finishing and physical affliction will not diminish those qualities just yet. His movement all game was quite excellent, always playing on the shoulder of the defender, chasing down, giving the players ahead of him options, giving defenders something to think about. It`s the kind of stuff Adebayor hasn`t been able to do quite so well this season. In the shape of Arshavin we appear to have a player who can aid and abet that movement too.
The good vibrations around the stadium were multiplied by the introduction of Walcott and van Persie from the bench. Walcott nearly glossed the occasion with yet more sentiment when he received Arshavin`s through ball and went one on one with Jensen, but again the big Dane thwarted an Arsenal player that elected to try and shoot underneath him. But it wouldn`t be long before Arsenal were bulging the net again from an unlikely source. Alex Song, accused in recent weeks of lacking invention, was again lubricating the creative wheel with an exquisite back heel into the path of Emmanuel Eboue in the area who passed up his usual wounded duck impression once he gets across the eighteen yard line and smashed the ball low and hard past Jensen. There was even an air of incredulity in the voice of the stadium announcer when greeting the goal. Eboue and Song however lose marks for copying my dancing. What the hell were they doing on the razz in Covent Garden on Friday night anyway? Arsenal almost put more sheen on the score line when Walcott miscontrolled the ball on the edge of the area, but such is the fear his immense pace brings, he was allowed time to regain the ball and clipped a perfect cross to van Persie who amazingly shanked his volley when it was lined up on his left foot. If only it had fallen onto his chocolate leg! Burnley fought manfully to the end and Caldwell clipped the bar with a header before Chris Foy auditioned for the worst decision of the season award when Djourou clearly tripped Paterson in the area. A quite astoundingly poor decision and one of the more stonewall penalties you will ever see.
It was a pleasing performance, we probably should take into account the quality of the opposition but Burnley could easily be a Premiership side in three months time. They would certainly be a most welcome addition. But what was pleasing from our point of view was that the play in the final third appeared much more natural and quite a lot livelier. The movement of Eduardo allied with the eye for a pass that Arshavin has in 'the hole` made us a more dangerous prospect. The finishing was the proof in the pudding too, where composure deserted us in our past few home matches, Vela, Eduardo and Eboue provided a flurry of varied and excellent finishing, each player produced exactly what the situation called for- particularly Eduardo who reminded us all- as if it we needed it- how deadly he can be in the penalty area. But his work off the ball for the team was equally incisive and served the team. We now have an excellent chance of earning some silverware in this competition. It would be majorly ironic if in probably the least impressive Wenger season, we picked up a trophy. It also shows what a misnomer the whole shallow "four years without a trophy" willy waving can be. Last season we finished empty handed but ultimately I was satisfied that we were competitive and had events conspired slightly differently, we would have been deserving winners of a major cup. This year so far, we do not deserve the same kind of reward but might just get it. As Alex Ferguson once remarked, "fuckin hell. Football, eh?"LD.
Date:Monday March 9 2009
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