Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday March 21 2010
Most of the pre match discussion focussed on the Champions League draw with Barcelona- a discussion lubricated further by the fact that Lord Lowe had booked our flights to Perpignan that morning as a crowd of around nine of us prepare for a trip to Catalonia. But whilst our heads were somewhat in the clouds as hotels and flight times were discussed in earnest, the focus of the players had to be 100% on West Ham United and a chance to apply the pressure on Manchester United and Chelsea at the top of the Premier League. Let`s face it, 5.30pm kick offs absolutely suck balls- particularly for home games when the build up becomes excruciating as you try and convince yourself that getting to the pub any time before 2.30pm is likely to result in you spending most of the first half slurring badly and trying to prevent your bladder from exploding.
But the game eventually got under way in teeming rain, the precipitation forming a film of liquid across the early evening sky and the Gunners appeared to buck a trend by starting brightly on the front foot. Indeed, Arsenal were ahead after only five minutes, Arshavin and Clichy linked up on the left hand side, Clichy`s cross was cleared to the edge of the area by Tomkins, Denilson showed a characteristic perception in picking up the loose ball, he played a one two with Bendtner in a very confined space and Denilson`s low drive from the edge of the area zipped sweetly into the side netting. That is four assists and four goals in Bendtner`s last six games; he has become quite a sounding board for our attacks. Arsenal looked in the mood to finish the game nice and early so we could have a relaxing Arsenal game for a change. It was Bendtner again who knocked down Fabregas` pass, to Denilson who played a neat one two with Nasri and as the ball sat up, Denilson attempted to meet it with an aerial volley but just got his timing wrong and consequently scuffed the ball straight at the keeper. West Ham only threatened sporadically, counter attacking on one occasion down Arsenal`s left, Junior Stanislas put in a low cross which just evaded Mido in the area.
But Arsenal were playing their world renowned brand of one touch football, nearly registering a contender for goal of the season as Clichy, Nasri and Arshavin exchanged one touch passes, leaving Bendtner to slightly overcook a pass to Fabregas in the area. Bendtner hit a low shot just wide from the edge of the area as the home side dominated. Arshavin again linked up with the effusive Gael Clichy, who played an intelligent angled pass to Fabregas in the area who steered a first time effort just wide. But with the half seemingly winding down to a soporific conclusion, the complexion of the match was to be altered completely. Diamanti hit a hopeful long ball towards Guillermo Franco, he was only too happy to fall in a crumpled heap under flimsy contact from Vermaelen. The linesman and the referee agreed with the award of a harsh penalty, but Martin Atkinson, who must have been a good forty yards away from the incident, took an absolute age to arrive in the area to brandish a red card for Vermaelen. The penalty award I can just about understand, though Franco, who of course fell in a crumpled heap under the feather touch of Gael Clichy in Villarreal 2006, but the red card was incredibly harsh and the referee was quite obviously influenced by the misinformed coverage of the Sol Campbell penalty award at Hull last week. Was this really a clear goal scoring opportunity? Franco did not have control of the ball so I cannot see how it can be considered as such. This was Arsenal`s first red card since Eboue`s dismissal at White Hart Lane fourteen months ago. I would bet you money you don`t read that sentence anywhere else today. Diamanti stepped up for the spot kick, but Almunia guessed correctly and beat away the spot kick and was swift to smother the rebound too. Almunia`s record with penalties is very impressive, he rarely goes the wrong way and you know you have to hit the corner to beat him. It was an enormous turning point and allowed us to reorganise at half time still in the ascendancy. Being forced to chase another goal with ten men would have been an enormous ask.
Alex Song slotted in at centre half and had a quite incredible game, in both of his positions. A few players were asked to play in two different positions during the 90 minutes- Arshavin, Song, Eboue- Diaby came on as a left winger. That they were all able to do so with such little fuss is an enormous credit to their professionalism and versatility. The second half began with West Ham very much on the front foot, sensing their opportunity for at least a point. Arsenal were able to shift their philosophy and concentrated on not conceding for the first fifteen minutes of the half. After the combustible Diamanti took a nasty swipe at Bendtner`s ankle, the home side`s only hold up striker had to go off, so Diaby came on as a left winger and Arshavin shifted to a lone striker role. Diaby was also quite immense when he came on, his ability to find space by appreciating the space around him and shifting away from players with beguiling turns is something to behold. I must admit to feeling rather smug to see some of the boo boys silence their critics, but I have to confess I didn`t really see this coming from Diaby. We have always known about his skill, but he seems finally to have learned when best to use it. Despite West Ham enjoying a good deal of possession, they rarely threatened. Diamanti had a strike that flew narrowly wide. But the biggest heart flutter came on 74 minutes when Carlton Cole moved away from Clichy and Song before hitting a left foot shot from twenty yards which clipped the outside if the post.
The Irons appeared to have run out of ideas and Arsenal began to sense their chance to finish the match. Fabregas won a crunching challenge in midfield, which allowed Eboue to take on the West Ham defence on the edge of the area, Fabregas was a picture of kinesis as he sprinted to the edge of the area to pick up Eboue`s pass, Fabregas tried to dink the ball into the area only to see Matthew Upson handle and a penalty was correctly awarded. Atkinson was incredibly keen to send off Vermaelen without pause for thought and from forty plus yards away from the incident, but he didn`t feel Upson`s deliberate handball warranted a second yellow card. Go. Fucking. Figure. Fabregas stepped up, Green was stood a long way over to his left, which is where all three of Fabregas` Arsenal penalties have been placed, but Cesc called Green`s bluff and steered the ball insouciantly to his right to seal the three points. Yesterday`s was a quite outstanding performance on a number of levels. The side had to show different qualities to hold their nerve and their lead when West Ham`s tails were up, the versatility showed by a number of players bears repeated praise. Arsenal have not had an easy ride of their last six league games yet they have won them all. Badly broken leg? Dodgy penalties? Harsh red cards? Shit referees? No problem, the Gunners are sweeping aside every obstacle and demonstrating a mental fortitude many thought was lacking. Several public funerals for our title chances haven`t perturbed the side and whatever happens in this title race now, they have earned our respect.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 31.CAMPBELL, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 15.DENILSON, 4.FABREGAS(c), 8.NASRI (3.Sagna `74), 23.ARSHAVIN (9.Eduardo `84), 52.BENDTNER (2.Diaby `57). Unused: 7.Rosicky, 14.Walcott, 18.Silvestre, 21.Fabianski.
Date:Sunday March 21 2010
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