Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday January 10 2010
First things first, ouch! Forgive the lateness of the report, but after a couple of heavy nights on the tiles, trying to make some sense of some Guinness and Glenfiddich fuelled carnage (naturally with complimentary romantic embarrassments), it`s been a monumental effort to shake off the detoxification tremors long enough to type. Yesterday morning, we were still in a state of limbo as to whether the game would be played, so congratulations to Arsenal for resisting the pressure from the over officious health and safety nuts and playing the game. My work is about two and a half miles from Arsenal and if it`s been sodding well safe enough for me to go into the office every day this week, then it was safe enough for me to go to the football on my day off! Whilst the approach to the stadium did look like a carpet of brown slush, those that spent hours gritting and clearing the pavements deserve credit for their hard work too. Naturally London Underground made sure that transport was as chaotic and difficult as they could possibly make it. They insisted on still closing the Victoria Line (to the unacquainted, that`s the sole tube line that does not go over ground at any point and therefore could not possibly be affected by the weather), throw in closures on the Circle and Jubilee lines for shits and giggles and you`ve got yourself one circuitous route to the ground.
Nevertheless we made it to the Tavern for a couple more Guinness`s (like I hadn`t had enough the evening before!) before ice skating gracefully to the ground to sit and freeze our nads off in some arctic temperatures. With most of the other big scaredy shit your pants girlies calling their games off, this was effectively Arsenal`s game in hand and had an extra feeling of importance to it. But the team never could quite get it going. Everton were obviously going to be rigorous and organised, but they were also more enterprising than certainly I had expected. It was the Toffees who created the game`s first opportunity of note and exposed Arsenal`s defensive frailties, Steven Pienaar curling an astute through ball from the left for Luis Saha to run onto with Vermaelen and Gallas too far advanced, thankfully Saha contrived to blast his shot well over. The home side were struggling to establish a rhythm but did have a flicker of a chance when Traore`s throw in found Diaby, he intelligently let the ball run before blasting a half volley well wide with Arshavin alert and missing connection by inches in the area. But Everton were pressing Arsenal all over the pitch and Luis Saha dispossessed a dithering Denilson in his own half. Saha`s shot was deflected wide and from the resulting corner, Leon Osman rose unmarked to head Landon Donovan`s corner into the roof of the Arsenal net.
Arsenal needed to respond but Everton were giving nothing away, with Fellaini excellently shielding his defence. The contest between Fellaini and Diaby was possibly the most intriguing one I have seen this season. One of Diaby`s notable improvements has been his delivery this season and it was he who chipped a gorgeous through ball into the area for the lingering Gallas, Howard`s attention was enough to suffocate the finish, with Leighton Baines hacking the loose ball away. The opportunity did lift the crowd and the players from their mutual slump. Denilson redeemed his error in the build up to the first goal by intercepting Felliani`s attempted ball to Cahill, muscling the ball forwards, Arshavin showed sleight of foot on the edge of the crowded area to find Eduardo, he shifted the ball back to his compatriot Denilson and his low shot from the edge of the area took a wicked deflection off of Osman, sending Howard the wrong way is the ball deviated and trickled low into the net. The Gunners had undeservedly restored parity, but now needed to press home an advantage, yet Everton were still resistant, ruthlessly well organised with an eye for the counter attack. They nearly restored their lead soon after, Everton had worked out that nobody seemed to be playing on the Arsenal left (seriously, even at half time, I had literally no idea whether Eduardo or Arshavin was supposed to be on the left, they spent the first half in one another`s pockets), Phil Neville and Landon Donovan doubled up on Traore at will, Neville tossing a cross towards the back post which Almunia horribly misjudged, leaving Cahill to nod down but Vermaelen hacked the ball away from the goal line. Sixty seconds later, Donovan again found space on the Arsenal left and cut the ball back for Phil Neville whose chip looped ominously onto the roof of the net. At half time, Everton had defended much better and created more opportunities than Arsenal. We were fortunate to be level.
In truth, the second half did not adopt a different pattern. The snow fell heavily from the skies, leaving a wintry dust on the surface, with the sound of gloves thudding notable in every round of applause. The weather too may explain why Gallas, Denilson and Eduardo were all treated for muscle strains at various points. Shorn of Fabregas` creativity and van Persie`s guile, Arsenal simply could not penetrate Everton`s backline. Eduardo muddled his way through a Maginot Line of Everton bodies on the lip of the penalty area, the ball broke to Ramsey with Howard advancing, Ramsey rounded Howard on the touchline but his cut back was thwarted. Ramsey had swapped with Nasri for the second half, taking up a slot on the right side with Nasri roaming centrally in an attempt to try and get some change from the visitors` midfield. But Everton again began to reassert themselves in the attacking third, Steven Pienaar finding Luis Saha on the edge of the area, despite the close attentions of three Arsenal defenders; he eked out a shot which deflected narrowly wide. The difference on the day was that similar deflections for Arsenal took the ball into the net.
The Gunners were getting no change from passing through the centre of Everton, so began to play some crosses into the box. Bacary Sagna providing a sumptuous delivery from the right and Rosicky narrowly failed to connect with a free header as he feared contact from Howard, Howard`s feeble bunch bounced just over Arshavin`s foot on the back stick. Next it was Traore`s turn from the left, delivering an excellent cross into the corridor of uncertainty betwixt defenders and keeper and Eduardo just failed to make contact. For the first time in the match, the home side had a spell of concerted pressure. Arshavin`s corner evaded everybody until Denilson picked it up on the corner of the penalty area and his left foot effort was deflected inches over the bar. A goalmouth scramble followed from another Arshavin corner, the ball dropping to Rosicky on the edge of the area, he miscued his shot badly but it fell to Vermaelen eight yards out, his effort was heroically blocked by Neville. Denilson gathered up the clearance and charged into the area, Neville`s challenge was high though he got the ball, but referee Peter Walton bottled the decision. In any other area of the pitch, I am 100% convinced that he would give a free kick fir dangerous play. Five minutes later, the referee pathetically penalised Gallas for a high boot when you`d have struggled to get a rizla between his studs and the turf. Spineless, inconsistent officiating of the highest order, which was the hallmark of Walton`s entire performance, simply being far too afraid to make any kind of a decision.
But Everton still showed ambition on the counter attack and were nearly rewarded when Cahill took on Gallas on the left touchline, he buffeted past him and made a beeline for the penalty area, but his cutback for James Vaughan was brilliantly intercepted by Abou Diaby- showing a defensive nous he`ll need to show a lot more in coming weeks with Denilson and Song unavailable. Inspired by Tim Cahill`s show of upper body strength, Andrey Arshavin mimicked him with a powerful run of his own from the left. With no Arsenal player up alongside him, Arshavin motored past Lucas Neill and powered towards goal, but with no support, his excellent run resulted only in a blocked shot. Had Eduardo been more awake and in support, the Gunners might have taken the lead. But with nine minutes remaining, it was Everton who took the lead for the second time. Arsenal massively over committed to attack, quite why Vermaelen and Gallas were in Everton`s area at the exact same time is a mystery- it`s a mistake they both made to such cost at Eastlands in September. Song usually covers his centre halves very well, but with Rosicky losing the ball to Cahill, the break was on. Cahill pushed the ball past Armand Traore to Steven Pienaar who had the entire half of the pitch to himself. He moved towards goal and nonchalantly dinked the ball over Almunia and into the net. The atmosphere in the ground was one of resignation, nobody foresaw a way back.
Everton could have well and truly put the game beyond Arsenal straight from the kick off. Denilson collapsed in agony with the ball in his possession, Cahill`s slide rule pass put James Vaughan through on goal but Almunia produced the save, it would be a save that ended up being more valuable than it felt at the time. The stadium announcer compounded the woes of the travelling fans shortly after by informing them that there would be no guarantee of trains home from London at all forte evening. The Gunners searched vainly for an equaliser, Merida found Diaby in space with Everton sat deep, he marauded to the edge of the area, with the crowd screaming "shooooot" Diaby demonstrated his growing intelligence, electing to wait for the run of Rosicky on the left, then nudging the ball into his path. Rosicky hit the shot with the outside of his right foot and Lucas Neill unwittingly ricocheted the ball past Howard for the equaliser in the 92nd minute. The team certainly deserve credit for having the desire to make the breakthrough when the game appeared to have been lost. It was quite possibly our most underwhelming performance of the season so far, though Everton deserve credit for not allowing us to play. With Song, Fabregas and van Persie missing we simply could not replace the qualities that they bring to the team sufficiently enough. The mood after the match was surprisingly positive in the Bank of Friendship, I think most people realised we had gained a point when defeat looked likely and was probably deserved. Our two goals were both deflected and Everton created more dangerous chances than we could, personally I`m looking on this as a get out of jail free card. But our luck will not always extend to serendipitous deflections.LD.
1.ALMUNIA(c), 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN, 30.TRAORE, 15.DENILSON(32.Merida `83), 16.RAMSEY (7.Rosicky `65), 2.DIABY, 8.NASRI, 9.EDUARDO (12.Vela `75), 23.ARSHAVIN. Unused: 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 37.Eastmond, 38.Emmanuel Thomas.
Date:Sunday January 10 2010
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