Aston Villa 0 Arsenal 0
So the marathon quadruplet of matches began with a midweek trip to Birmingham. The fixture compilers obviously think the relative locality from London to Birmingham makes a midweek away match at Villa Park acceptable for London based supporters. Those people have obviously never tried to drive on the M6 motorway on a weekday evening. Having only just made kick off due to the appalling traffic, followed by the fact that Villa Park really is a pokey ground ill prepared to greet crowds of its size. There was one single steward standing on the turnstile searching every Arsenal fan that came in, the corridors and staircases that take you to the Upper Tier wouldn`t accommodate one of Tom Huddlestone`s cankles, but the seats aren`t bad in the Upper Tier of the Away section, seated as I was quite centrally and near the back. Nevertheless, Villa Park is a ground that is beginning to show its age.
The match was always going to be incredibly tight, but Villa were up from the first whistle and nearly took a fourth minute lead when Stiliyan Petrov`s ball saw Agbonlahor roll past a soporific Thomas Vermaelen, his low angled shot was excellently beaten out by Manuel Almunia. Villa were making all the running in the early stages with Vermaelen in particular looking cumbersome. Villa`s game plan was predictable but not easy to prevent as a result of its exponentiality. Villa pushed Arsenal backwards, their forwards pressurising Arsenal`s defenders in possession, pinning the full backs back and making the gaps between Arsenal`s midfield and attack voluminous. The Gunners took a while to feel their way into the match, Rosicky produced some good work on the left, he pulled the ball back to Eduardo whose scuffed shot would have reached an unmarked Cesc Fabregas on the back post were it not for the timely interception of Richard Dunne. Arsenal were again under duress at the back when Heskey looked to rampage through, only to be felled by Vermaelen. Ashley Young`s resulting free kick flew inches wide of the upright. Vermaelen`s mobility looked to be severely restricted and he eventually had to come off to be replaced by Sol Campbell. Arsenal`s propensity towards muscle injuries bears analysis, this sort of injury is harder to rationalise save for serendipity. With yet another key player now injured, you have to wonder when our luck on the injury front is going to change. Nasri and Gibbs have already broken bones this season, whilst van Persie ripped nearly every ankle ligament going in one sturdy challenge. It really is getting difficult to know what to say anymore other than the fact that we have to try and cope as best we can.
Meanwhile, the game began to get a semblance of rhythm to it with temperatures rising. The quite sensationally awful referee Lee Propbert managed to annoy pretty much everybody with his finickerty officiating, punishing the most minor of offences, refusing to play the advantage on 759 separate occasions and then refusing to punish quite blatant fouls. He particularly aroused the wrath of the home crowd when he waved away a foul by Gallas on Agbonlahor on the edge of the area which was as plain as the goatee on Rafa Benitez`s face. Mutual mockery abounded in the stands too when Villa attempted to "goad" Arsenal fans with a chant of "Eng-er-land." I use inverted commas on the word goad because I can`t think of one Arsenal fan that finds the chant anything other than an antiquated bore. So it was with beautifully poetic timing that Emile Heskey skied a shot around 3,000 metres above the bar just as the chorus was fading. The inevitable cry of "You need more foreigners" punctuated the ironic jeers. But Arsenal fans soon had cause for concern again when Ashley Young buffeted his way past Clichy on Villa`s right and clipped a well flighted ball to the back post, but Stewart Downing got under the ball and side footed his half volley well over the cross bar. Arsenal were struggling to get onto the ball, a lack of width making options for Denilson, Ramsey and Fabregas paltry and Villa`s pressurising prevented the use of our passing triangles. So it was perhaps no surprise that the best opportunity of the half for Arsenal arrived in stoppage time as a consequence of some up and at 'em play. Fabregas received the ball forty yards from goal, once again with very few options ahead of him, so he decided to power past Petrov, glide past Dunne and hurdle the challenge of Collins, taking him into the penalty area, his low shot across goal evaded Friedel`s dive and hit the post. The rebound looked destined for Rosicky, but Ramsey impeded him, forcing the Czech to take another touch and blast the ball over the top. Half time, level pegging was about right, but one couldn`t help but ruminate on that missed opportunity.
A lack of sharpness in the area would cost Arsenal again in the opening minutes of the half. Arshavin and Clichy dovetailed beautifully on the left, Clichy`s low cross was fumbled by Friedel and Eduardo and Rosicky were rocking back on their heels, unable to take advantage of a presentable close range chance. But just a few minutes later, Villa would likewise suffer from a lack of due care and attention in the opposition penalty area. Ashley Young`s cross was deflected off of William Gallas, the ball looped over Almunia and Sagna and onto the head of Stewart Downing just two yards from goal, but he somehow contrived to head the ball wide with the goal net winking at him. The chance gave Villa a renewed impetus again, with Arsenal`s frontline stranded like a towel on a beach when you are swimming in a rough sea. Eduardo then pulled up with a hamstring injury, meaning that Nicklas Bendtner came on to replace him. It was a welcome change as Bendtner demonstrated the ability to compete with the mammoth figures of Collins and Dunne and hold the ball up excellently. I`m sorry to say it, but I don`t honestly think we`ll miss Eduardo one bit; I`m struggling to think of more than a couple of meaningful contributions to games since van Persie was injured. Bendtner produced more in his thirty minute cameo that was of threat to the opposing backline than Eduardo has for a good three weeks. Bendtner played outstandingly as a lone striker in the defeat of Manchester United at home last season, I have to think that if his fitness is up to it, he`ll cause United and Chelsea more problems than Eduardo would.
With a centre forward capable of retaining the ball and waiting for the midfield to join him, Arsenal began to construct some threatening moves. It was notable the first couple of times Bendtner controlled a ball out of the air, he was left isolated and frustrated. Eventually, the midfield cottoned onto the fact that Bendtner, unlike Eduardo, could provide them with a sounding board and they began to get up and join him. Ramsey and Arshavin were snuffed out at the last after Arsenal had built promising moves. But the chance of the match arrived on 60 minutes. Andrey Arshavin showed how deceptively powerful he is with a lightning turn of pace on the left wing before shrugging off Cuellar and Collins, sauntering through on goal, Friedel foiled his attempt, the ball looped up to Fabregas who showed immense composure to hook the ball out of the air to Tomas Rosicky. With three Villa players on the line he lifted his strike onto the underside of the bar from six yards. Villa responded with some territorial dominance, but Arsenal, marshalled by Gallas and Campbell, withstood the pressure. The home side then surrendered the momentum when on top with around ten minutes left when they replaced Emile Heskey with midfielder Fabian Delph and settled for the point when they might have looked for all three. In the last ten minutes, Arsenal looked the side most likely. Fabregas` corner ricocheted in the box and fell for Sol Campbell; he swivelled and shot but was blocked from close range. Villa were again aggrieved by some laughable refereeing when Richard Dunne sauntered past Denilson, who really should have taken the booking and executed the technical foul, Dunne moved to the edge of the box where he was clearly tripped by Sol Campbell, but the referee waved play on to our relief and mirth. It put the seal on a performance that was equally baffling for both sets of supporters. In the end, a draw was not a bad result at Villa Park, Chelsea have fallen there this season and my impression was and still is that drawing the away games and winning the home games of this little four game spell will represent excellent value. We might have to be a bit wilier in our play when teams close us down as well as Villa did and the midfield will need to show better movement. Denilson took a lot of flack and I can understand it as he was very cumbersome in possession, however, he and Ramsey were left with very few choices every time they got the ball, coupled with a marauding Villa attacker on their tails, the movement will need to improve. Ultimately we`ve had a couple of gilt edged chances to win the match and created better opportunities than Villa overall, despite the fact that they were in the ascendancy for long periods. The value of the draw will not be apparent for another ten days, the injuries will probably tell though.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 10.GALLAS, 5.VERMAELEN (31.Campbell `34), 22.CLICHY, 15.DENILSON, 16.RAMSEY, 4.FABREGAS(c), 7.ROSICKY (8.Nasri `82), 23.ARSHAVIN, 9.EDUARDO (52.Bendtner `61). Unused: 14.Walcott, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore.