Everton 1 Arsenal 6
Not being of the religious bent, Christmas doesn`t really float my boat and I am almost entirely ambivalent towards my birthday. You might think that makes me something of a joyless arse- and you`d probably be right. But if you`re asking which day in the calendar really puts a bounce in my step and leaves me counting down the days in anticipation, look no further than the opening day of the football season. Whilst the sound of one`s alarm at 07.30 on a Saturday morning would usually leave one with a snarling feeling of chagrin, it was with a hop, a skip and a jump I bounded from bed, pulled on my favourite Double Winners 2002 red polo shirt and skipped towards Balham tube station with the all the enthusiasm of Julie Andrews bounding through the hills in the Sound of Music. (Or for those of you familiar with the Simpsons, you remember the episode where Homer wakes to find he has a full head of hair and promptly runs through Springfield in the grip of elation?) New season maybe, but the same old traditions were observed, a sustaining fry up in the Little Wonder cafe before renewing old acquaintances in Queensland Road as we boarded the coach. Summer`s strangers were once again comrades in arms.
There are a number of nuances I have come to love about the first day of the new football season, the first sight of everyone in their new replica shirts which, in the catalogue, looked drab and uninspiring, but inebriated on the optimism of August, you quite like it in the flesh- you would even consider buying one. (You know full well you won`t). Usually I prefer the opening match to be at home so as to immerse oneself in the mass camaraderie, but no matter as we band of hardy brothers took to the motorways. Unfortunately, one of my favourite opening day conventions was sadly missing as hazy sunshine gave way to torrential rain the build up to kick off. Joleon Lescott was afforded a generous reception from the home support, whilst he was mischievously booed by the away fans- I cannot quite fathom why?! The visiting support was in rapturous voice as season 2009-10 got under way to an intense chorus of "we love you Arsenal." Life was truly worth living again.
Usually, a visit to Goodison Park ensures a hounding home crowd and a ravenous Everton side, pushing, clawing and pressing at every opportunity. For whatever reason, the crowd and the team were very flat from the off, allowing Arsenal to dominate possession in midfield, Denilson and particularly Song`s tidy touches kept the twin threats of Cahill and Fellaini muted. A half fit Jo was left to plough a lone furrow. The Gunners visibly grew as the half went on, without the temptation to use Adebayor as a battering ram; Arsenal zipped the ball between one another with precision. The approach was vindicated after 26 minutes; Bendtner took down Sagna`s pass on the right hand side, skipped inside Leighton Baines with a swift shuffle of the feet and squared the ball to Fabregas on the edge of the area, under pressure from Fellaini, the Arsenal skipper nudged the ball further to the left and Denilson unleashed a beautiful swerving shot into the top corner, which arced past Howard`s despairing right hand. Once more, without the temptation to hit Adebayor as a lone striker, Cesc had license to roam to the edge of the area and join in the more sophisticated build up play. As expected, the home side twitched back into action. Leighton Baines` right wing corner saw Fellaini out leap Vermaelen, only to find Denilson well positioned on the goal line to repel a certain equaliser. Arsenal`s ability to deal with set pieces in their own area was under the sticky heat of the spotlight once more. But the Gunners` centre backs were to show greater aptitude in the opposing penalty area.
Nicklas Bendtner drew a foul from Leighton Baines from Almunia`s kick out and Robin van Persie flighted in a swerving free kick to the back post, Vermaelen manoeuvred beyond a static Lescott and Fellaini and stretched the sinews of his neck muscles to loop a far post header beyond the dive of Tim Howard. Four minutes later and the Arsenal centre halves were setting hearts a flutter again- thankfully for the opposition. Van Persie drew a foul from Yobo on the left hand side; half way inside Everton`s half after some sparkling one touch passing. Fabregas swing a free kick into the area and Fellaini again stood and watched as Gallas was left unmarked six yards from goal to glance the Gunners into a three goal lead. Half time and the game was all but over. Having matched Everton physically and earned the right to play in the first twenty minutes, Arsenal allowed their football to take over.
Everton were left with no other alternative but to "go and win the second half" as football parlance would have it. As it turned out, the cavalier approach of the opening minutes of the second half would prove to be their undoing. Hibbert charged forwards, only to be dispossessed by Andrey Arshavin, the Russian released the ball quickly onto Denilson`s intelligent run and in turn the Brazilian swiftly sent the ball down the line to van Persie, van Persie found Fabregas` lung bursting run and the skipper controlled calmly and lashed it past Howard left footed. It looked to be another small improvement from Arsenal- quick passing. The counter attack goal was the unmistakable hallmark of the Invincibles, precisely because the players released the ball quickly. Last season, I`ve no doubt that either Denilson or van Persie would either have held the ball too long or shown too much of a propensity towards launching long to Adebayor. The fluid football looked to be back. It was unfortunate that some of the away fans felt the need to mark the performance by singing that unsavoury song about Adebayor and with a confusing rendition of the Vieira song. I guess nostalgia sells well nowadays, but singing about players that don`t play for us any longer hardly seems like the way to motivate those that do. This is why I was thankful to hear a group give an airing to a new Arshavin song which should be simple enough to catch on. (Simply his name sung over and again to the same tune as 'Viva Ronaldo`). With Red Action giving out free red and white scarves before the Arsenal Portsmouth game, that one should be aired rather more vocally next week.
Everton fans to our left began to stream out of the ground with just 48 minutes played. I`m glad our supporters don`t act like that in similar circumstances, ahem! The game ceased to be anything approaching competitive thereafter, Fellaini took a couple of chunks out of Alex Song`s Achilles without punishment- presumably the afro sporting midfielder had grown tired of being so consummately outclassed by the Cameroonian. The lack of competition was crystallized by Arsenal`s fifth goal, Almunia bowled the ball out to Fabregas halfway inside Arsenal`s half and Cesc was allowed to motor 50 yards forwards without so much as a suggestion of a challenge and he was left with the task of lashing a low shot past Howard from twenty yards. "Lescott for Tottenham!" came the cry from the travelling Gooners. Fabregas meanwhile celebrated with a moving tribute to Espanyol`s captain, who died earlier this week. Fabregas and van Persie were given leave by Arsene to immerse their feet into an icy bucket of water and Emmanuel Eboue`s name rang out loud and clear as he took the place of the industrious Bendtner.
It was Eboue, popping up on the left side of the front three, threw an indecipherable amount of step overs before shifting the ball to Eduardo in the penalty area, he found Arshavin whose shot deflected onto the post and Eduardo summoned up all of his predatory instinct to follow up and nudge home the rebound. His first appearance in the Premiership since St. Andrews last February and another fillip in his recovery and another example of Arsenal`s more intricate build up play. Lamentably, Arsenal could not preserve the clean sheet as the Toffeemen hit a stoppage time consolation. Dan Gosling played an intelligent ball to Pienaar in the area, Almunia slid out to his feet with the save, but Luis Saha tucked home the rebound. But it could not quite dampen the mood as Arsenal inexplicably began the season with a 6-1 away win. Quite a marker to have laid down, the team moved the ball efficiently, worked hard for one another and took their chances when they arrived. Whether this is continued throughout the season we wait and see, but the fact that Arsenal scored from two set pieces and one swift counter attack shows an impressive variety that I hope is continued. Denilson and Song proved to be excellent foil for our more attacking elements and Bendtner and Arshavin worked hard down their respective flanks to make the 4-3-3 formation work and Arsenal`s play had a great deal more fluidity and intelligence to it. However, as Cesc was correct to point out, such results are not the norm, we have obviously met with Everton at an excellent time and I`d suggest we`ll find out more about this team when they go a goal behind. But for now, the signs are encouraging, Denilson, Song and Bendtner all look better players than they did this time last year, the spectre of Adebayor removed, Arsenal look less predictable with Arshavin and Fabregas liberated to wreak havoc. One swallow does not a summer make, but despite the teeming rain and the endless, endless road works on the M6, it certainly felt like a glorious day in the sun yesterday.LD.