Stoke City 1 Arsenal 3
After a very surreal night in King`s Cross (is there any other kind on King`s Cross?) in which I managed to have my phone and my i pod, ahem, "liberated" from my pocket (like I said, King`s Cross) and also managed to wake up in Finchley with little to no idea how I got there. So whilst trying to get my head around the events of the night before, I journeyed to Holloway Road somewhat dazed and confused and feeling rather disconnected without my mobby. After a hangover slaying fry up, it was a dozy journey to Staffordshire which was largely spent dribbling with my face pressed against the coach window. Confidence was high going into the match; I always felt there was an element of Arsenal wanting to prove themselves at the Britannia after two reductive defeats there in little over a year. The team did not let my assertion down one little bit.
That said, Arsenal fell behind in all too familiar circumstances. Alex Song wrestled with Liam Lawrence, with the ball going out for a corner, instinct took over and Song put the ball out for a throw in. Almunia remonstrated, arguing that he should have let the ball cross the line and allow Arsenal to deal with the corner. As premonitions go it was hardly of Nostradamus proportions but we all knew what would follow. Sure as eggs is eggs after about twenty minutes of drying the ball, fiddling with his hair, scratching his aris and rearranging his knackers (would any other player in the Premiership be allowed to take this long over a throw in so many times?) he launched the ball into the area, Shawcross flicked the ball to the back post where Eboue had slumbered and allowed Danny Pugh to head Stoke in front. For the third consecutive time, Arsenal were behind to Rory Delap`s first long throw of the afternoon. But that was to be the only opportunity Stoke really created as Arsenal began to slowly edge their way back into the game. The Potters were well organised and defensively disciplined, whilst the wanky, sub Fourth Division standard cabbage patch of a pitch made it difficult for a game of football to break out. A diagonal ball towards Bendtner bounced invitingly for Fabregas some thirty yards out, he performed an instant chest control before a bouncing volley made life difficult for Sorensen, who palmed the ball away for a corner. Fabregas` subsequent delivery nearly swerved into the top corner. But Arsenal of the cultured tippy tappy play found a deserved equaliser in unlikely circumstances. Sagna threw the ball to Fabregas, no Stoke player closed him down, clearly unperturbed by the prospect of a cross. But Fabregas clipped an inch perfect cross to Nicklas Bendtner who climbed above Shawcross before heading the ball back across goal into the far corner. All of a sudden the Stoke chants of "can we play you every week?" were looking laughably premature. An incident I noticed at the time that seemed innocuous must really be repeated. I`ve no idea if the television cameras captured it, but after Fabregas had fouled Shawcross on the half way line, the Stoke player took exception and as Fabregas and Shawcross jogged into the area in anticipation of the free kick, Shawcross let loose with a volley of invective for a sustained period of about ten seconds, before turning his ire towards Nicklas Bendtner in the box. After a Gael Clichy shot was saved in the second half, you can see Shawcross has Bendtner in a headlock despite the fact Sorensen has it under control. In retrospect, it`s not hard to deduce what his instructions were with regard to intimidating Arsenal.
Come half time, you felt Arsenal were in the ascendancy. Players such as Fabregas were standing up to the physical test and at this point, I`d have to say that Gael Clichy really looked like the player of two or three seasons ago, inspiring the team with his tenacity and pace again. The second half was entirely one way traffic and Stoke did not have much of an answer to Arsenal`s constant pressing. Fabregas played a clever through pass to Ramsey who was clearly hauled down by Abdoulaye Faye but Peter Walton gave no penalty. Had the foul happened in the centre circle, I`ve no doubt his whistle would have been wet from his lips. Gael Clichy careered forward with insouciance and his right foot shot was saved by Sorensen. The Gunners went even closer when Fabregas turned an intelligent pass around to the marauding Eboue who strode forward with purpose before unleashing a strike which Sorensen tipped over. The away side were getting closer but tragedy was afoot.
Shawcross lost control of the ball on the halfway line, the bright Ramsey, indicative of how instinctive and measured he had been all game and indeed all season, picked up the loose ball. Shawcross went clattering in with unnecessary force and the damage was instantly visible to everyone in the away end. I didn`t see Eduardo`s leg snap, I had to rely on the force of the player`s reactions and had events relayed to me by those watching on television. I saw this, I could see the state of Ramsey`s leg as clear as day as it hung at a sickening angle. I tried to shield my eyes but then forced myself to look. The reaction around me was a real mixture, as shock effects people in different ways. Many were angry and began to hurl invective, all too familiar with seeing an Arsenal player prone in the turf. For my part, I was dumbstruck and stood motionless. Not ten minutes earlier, Lord Lowe and I were discussing just how well he was playing- a conversation we must have repeated a dozen times this season. I recall at the beginning of the second half Lord Lowe saying words to the effect of, "He reminds me of Cesc when he was a teenager and that he doesn`t play like a teenager at all." The human side of this, which still resonates this morning, is utterly tragic. A 19 year old boy who has just forced his way into the first team after a string of outstanding performances, a player with the whole world at his feet and seemingly destined to be one of the great British players of his generation. Around a fortnight ago I was speaking with a United supporting friend who told me, "Ferguson actually did find the natural successor to Paul Scholes, it`s just too bad Arsene Wenger got him." We`ve seen with Eduardo and Diaby that surmounting this sort of injury is incredibly difficult, rebuilding the muscle troublesome, to emphasise the point neither Diaby nor Eduardo were fit to start the game. We wish him a speedy recovery.
As for Shawcross? I`m sure he feels terrible this morning, he certainly looked distraught as he had to pass a stand full of emotional Arsenal fans on his way down the tunnel and in a way, he is a small symptom of a bigger problem. How incredibly unfunny that having spent the last few years perpetrating the "Arsenal don`t like it up 'em" discourse that Sky elected not to show the challenge again. Brilliant. Create a monster and then come over all sympathy and Kleenex when it stomps on a building. Besides which, can someone name me the teams that do like being kicked all over the pitch? Who are these mythical teams that aren`t satisfied with their 90 minutes work until their bollocks are black and blue? More to the point, what in the name of buggery are they doing playing football? I`ve no doubt Shawcross had no intention of snapping Ramsey`s leg, just as I`m sure a drunk driver doesn`t mean to plough into a pedestrian. (Even if he is "not that type of driver"). The force in the challenge was absolutely 100% unnecessary . Think about it, even if Shawcross does win the ball, it simply flies thirty yards up the pitch for a goal kick and probably leaves Ramsey with a nasty bruise. The only reason to commit a challenge in that area of the pitch with that velocity is with the intention to "leave one on 'im." For the third time in less than four years I see an Arsenal player`s leg mangled on the turf of an away ground by an English player. The media is incredibly fond of relaying the myth that diving is a foreign pursuit, perhaps it`s time to broadcast leg snapping tackles as an English problem? It was funny because prior to even hearing Wenger`s interview on the radio, I used the words, "no coincidence" in reference to these three injuries and that is exactly the phrase the manager used. Professionals have a duty of care to one another and if mowing into opposing players at 300mph proves a point somehow, then perhaps it`s time to pack up and go home until this macho edict is dumped once and for all. As for the Stoke fans to my right, by no means "only a few" either who chanted "He`s only got one leg" before his ambulance was even out of our sight, and be advised I have no intention of intellectualising my phraseology before you read on. Fuck you. Fuck every last one of you. Oh but don`t tell me, Stoke fans aren`t that type of supporter? Do me a favour.
Understandably it took Arsenal a few minutes to recover themselves. Vermaelen and Campbell were visibly moved, Fabregas wanted to rage but simply didn`t know how, the referee had brandished the red card which was all he could have done, Song moved to the other side of the pitch to pray. Rosicky and Fabregas took an element of law into their own hands with some rough housing of their own (none of the leg snapping variety mind). Fabregas would have to go some to go up in my estimation, having reached what I believed to be the ceiling of my admiration, but his shushing gesture to Pulis after flooring Collins was such a beautiful sight. If ever an image encapsulated Arsenal`s refusal to bow to tactics the likes of which Pulis encouraged his team to employ, that was it, together with Cesc`s insistence on the huddle at the end. Nevertheless, with the man advantage Arsenal pressed on hungrily. Alex Song lifted a clever through ball to Eduardo but he managed to scuff a glorious chance wide. There would have been some justice in him clinching a winner given preceding events. But the breakthrough came as the clock struck 90. Nicklas Bendtner tried to flick a through ball into the penalty area, but Danny Pugh`s hand obstructed its path and the spot kick was given. Sorensen had of course already saved a Fabregas penalty this season, so the nerves were palpable but Cesc squeezed his low penalty just under Sorensen`s hand.
Arsenal got themselves a clincher in injury time when Tomas Rosicky`s shot was parried by Sorensen, Fabregas was the brightest brain in the box as he sped to the rebound and pulled it back across goal for Thomas Vermaelen to tap in his 8th goal of the season. In the end, the result and its consequences have been totally over shadowed by other events. Chelsea`s capitulation at home to Citeh- where Bridge taught Terry what playing away from home was all about- means Arsenal are within three points of the leaders and find themselves back into the most pendulous title race in living memory. That the players matched Stoke for physicality and effort and then were able to find the resources to stick at their task after watching a teenage team mate suffer so badly speaks well of their mental fortitude. I really hope Ramsey`s ill fortune awards the team a motivation, the huddle at the game`s conclusion suggest it might well have. This time the captain pulled his troops together in the centre circle as opposed to falling apart in it. Easier to do after a victory of course, but we had to earn that victory first. Let`s do it for Rambo.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 31.CAMPBELL, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY (7.Rosicky `70), 4.FABREGAS(c), 27.EBOUE (14.Walcott `75), 8.NASRI (9.Eduardo `83), 52.BENDTNER. Unused: 12.Vela, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski, 30.Traore.