Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday June 18 2009
Given Arsenal`s lack of transfer activity on deadline day, possibly the last thing Arsenal and their supporters needed was a two week international hiatus for the whys and wherefores of Arsene`s austerity to be pored over without the distraction of an imminent match. So we were perhaps all relieved that the spotlight focus became somewhat softer on N5 when a young Arsenal player travelled to Zagreb a pretender and came back a national hero. Theo Walcott`s match winning hat trick for England against Croatia bought the eyes of the world to Arsenal`s right flank as the hype slipped effortlessly into overdrive. Walcott, being the well grounded young man he is, has not since been caught basting strippers in trendy nightclub toilets whilst flunkies hand him virgin American Express cards to chop out a line of Columbia`s finest.
Within minutes of his re-emergence into club football, Walcott was making the difference again. This time on Arsenal`s left hand side, eight minutes into the match at Ewood Park, Walcott twisted and turned past two bewildered Rovers midfielders and slipped an elegant ball into van Persie on the edge of the Blackburn box and the Dutchman took one touch into his stride before prodding the ball past Blobinson with the outside of his left foot. In the coming months, Robin would not rely so heavily on the finer points of his left boot, discovering instead that his right foot is not solely for standing on. Walcott would however demonstrate that he still has a bit to learn when he sliced an easy chance wide. Egged on by the complete lack of tenacity from Paul Ince`s side, the Gunners strung together a patient, twenty two pass move which culminated in Denilson slinging in a left wing cross for Adebayor to head home unmarked on the back post just before half time. The away side were rewarded with something of a stroll in the second half, which was just as well as they would still have around 3,500 miles to travel in the seven days that proceeded. Nine minutes from time, Emmanuel Eboue`s steep improvement was emphasised when he careered into the Blackburn box only to be brought down by Stephen Warnock for a penalty. Disappointingly, most Arsenal fans let Eboue`s reputation precede him by claiming a dive when Warnock clearly caught the back of Eboue`s right heel. Adebayor converted the penalty before completing a hat trick in injury time, latching onto Ramsey`s through ball to round Blobinson and score left footed, completing the "perfect" hat trick.
The Champions League Group Stage opened with a trip to far flung Kyiv. As it turns out it was possibly the strangest and most unwelcoming place I have ever visited. Ukraine is not much of a hotbed for Western tourists and it appears the locals want to keep it that way. In the intimate surroundings of the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium, Arsene foreshadowed an experiment he would repeat in the Spring by playing a 4-2-3-1 system, Denilson and Song holding, with Fabregas, Walcott and van Persie spearheading the midfield and Adebayor playing alone upfront. Adebayor was still showing some trepidation in front of goal, he was the beneficiary of a weak Kyiv back pass, giving him a good twenty yard unopposed run at goal, but the Togonator fluffed his lines and blasted over. William Gallas` rather incongruous form came to the fore again in the second half, his comical mis-kick allowed Bangoura in on the right hand side, with Arsenal`s defence yet again playing too high a line away from home, the rearguard struggled back and Sagna eventually hauled down Vukojevic as he attempted to meet the cross. Bangoura duly converted the penalty and Arsenal`s Eastern European woes looked set to continue unabated. However, Gallas made amends for his error with two minutes left. Walcott raced free down the right, and was not mercilessly hacked down for the first time in the game, Adebayor miscued his close range finish but Gallas was on hand to scoop home a scruffy equaliser. At the match`s end, only Toure, Eboue and Walcott came to acknowledge the support. It is no wonder player-supporter relations have plumbed new depths this season.
Arsenal completed the mammoth round trip with a journey to Bolton. The Trotters took the lead in typical style, a corner swung into the box met by a Kevin Davies header with Toure and Gallas both grounded. The defensive deficiencies were becoming all the starker by the match. But Emmanuel Eboue, the Swiss Army knife man, playing on the left wing this time, equalised from Adebayor`s through ball. The Gunners, for one of the few occasions this season, began playing true Wengerball and Eboue was prominently involved again as Denilson provided yet another assist, once again coming in from the left- where his previous two assists emanated from- his low cross was swept home by Bendtner. An understandably fatigued Arsenal side were made to hold on for the second half. As sure as a Bolton set piece will undo Arsenal in this fixture, so will a Kevin Davies challenge as Clichy was stretchered off having felt the full force of Davies` studs. But Arsenal secured the points late on, substitute Theo Walcott, well and truly the man of the moment, made light of Kevin Nolan`s pre match claims that he would kick young Theo out of the game, hared through the Bolton defence and set Adebayor free on the right, who crossed for Denilson to score. The sort of counter attack goal for which we were once renowned was now a rare sight. Arsenal were top of the league and the kids took grip of that feel good factor and beat Sheffield United 6-0 in the Third Round of the Carling Cup. Nicklas Bendtner set the pace with two early goals, which were supplanted by a stunning Carlos Vela hat trick that well and truly announced his arrival. If Theo Walcott`s hat trick in Croatia had made him a superstar in England, then Vela`s varied and subtle finishes for his trio made him an instant superstar in North London. Jack Wilshere`s raking drive made it 6-0 as the Emirates crowd looked on with avuncular affection at the next generation of young renegades.
However, the feel good factor would be humiliatingly demolished three days later when Hull City came to the Emirates. Despite a tepid display, the home side did eventually take the lead when Walcott`s cross was scrambled into his own net by Paul McShane. But a rudderless Gunners side took their foot off the pedal, their hands off the steering wheel and let the engine die down to a murmur. Without adequate leadership on the pitch driving them on, the home side`s league of arrogant children allowed the Tigers to bite back. Firstly when Geovanni was left unchallenged thirty yards from goal, allowing him to smash an exocet past Almunia. It doesn`t take a great deal of research to know that the Brazilian specialises in this kind of strike, but it was this sense of entitlement and lack of scrutiny that derailed Arsenal on this day. Sure as sugar, Hull were quick to expose everybody`s favourite Arsenal weakness. The set piece. Marney`s corner was met by a firm, swivelling header from Daniel Cousin, with Gallas again looking on in apathy. Gallas would nearly rescue his own error again in injury time, heading against the bar. But the French captain appeared to have forgotten that he was supposed to be a centre half and not a centre forward. All was not right with the captain and all was not present and correct with the team. The lack of focus showed in this game would reappear in coming weeks, without experienced leaders the side looked given to complacency. The only leader we did have, the skipper, was playing like an outdoor toilet. It would take a questionable verbal outburst from the same man to clear the air.
So Arsenal once again found themselves on a mission of redemption when F.C. Porto arrived in North London. Adebayor`s pull back for van Persie saw the Dutchman prod home to open the scoring. Van Persie would return the favour, assisting Adebayor with a devilish corner, duly headed in via the underside of the bar. The two goals had been preceded by Porto hitting the bar themselves and with Clichy making a last ditch goal line clearance. But once again, Arsenal showed that when circumstances were in their favour, they were a match for anyone. Van Persie cleverly nutmegged Bruno Alves before lashing home a third and Adebayor completed a neat symmetry in the scorers, he converted from the spot after Bendtner`s trickery had earned a penalty. However, the game did little to alleviate the concerns of the Arsenal public. We already knew Arsenal could take most teams apart "on their day." But evidence of backbone and resolution when fortune was more fickle was still lacking. With experience such as Gilberto and Lehmann not replaced and with Gallas and Toure looking out of sorts, the Gunners looked rudderless when water began to pierce the deck of the good ship Wenger. With Hleb and Rosicky`s craft not properly replaced, particularly as Nasri spent most of September sidelined, Arsenal still lacked the creativity in midfield to break down defensively well organised opponents. Arsene`s austerity in the market was not looking so prudent after all and further trials and tribulations were to come.LD.
VA Player of the Month: Theo Walcott.
Date:Thursday June 18 2009
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