Blackburn Rovers 1 Arsenal 2
So thanks to the bigwigs at Sky Sports, I found my alarm sounding at 3 o`clock in the am for the long trip north to Blackburn. Bruno and I negotiated the drunks on the night buses from South West to North London (when you`re sober, you realise just how obnoxious you must be when you`re drunk, because other drunks don`t seem to irritate you so much in the sweet haze of inebriation) and joined the coaches at Queensland Road for 5am, puffy eyed and sleep deprived. A quite appallingly greasy and grizzly breakfast sandwich later, we were on the road just as the watery sun began to pierce the morning cloud. Conversation began to turn to the Carling Cup draw, with sides such as Northampton and Peterborough still in the draw, the prospect of a new away ground was on everyone`s mind. So of course we drew Spurs away. A ground we`ve all been to a million times and one where the prospect of getting one`s face danced on for the sake of a League Cup tie is very real. Can anyone remember the last time we got a domestic cup draw that was remotely exciting or exotic?
The Champions League draw also bought plenty of conversation, as travel arrangements, pricing etc were discussed at length, whilst I think my anecdotes from the Ukraine, along with the prohibitive pricing, pretty much put anyone off considering a trip to Donetsk! Braga appears to be the mutually preferred destination, though young Tim has already booked up Belgrade and faces the prospect of facing the Grobari alone. (Though this is a man who travelled to Swansea to watch his local side Barnet take a 3-0 beating on a Wednesday night recently. You could call him a sadist). We arrived into Lancashire to find the optimistic reports of sunshine had been replaced by black clouds and a slanting, whipping rain that you only seem to get in the North of England. We braved the elements to grab a couple of jars of local bitter in hopes of seeing the Carling Cup draw, which we had been reliably informed would take place at 12.15. By 12.30pm, it was clear Sky suffer the same kind of irritating delusion as UEFA, in thinking supporters want endless amounts of "build up" and dramatic tension for a poxy cup draw. Piss off! Just pull the balls out of the bag, tell us who we got, then shut up. Building up a big game is one thing, but Christ, Matt Le Tissier of whoever it is pulling a ball out of a bowl does not require such hyperbole you self congratulatory morons.
We took our seats in the upper tier just as the team were emerging, with Sebastien Squillaci added to the squad this week to little fanfare, it appeared Arsene had snuck the signing of Abel Xavier in under the radar. Hold on a minute, THAT is Alex Song? I never thought I`d say this, but the Sideshow Bob do looked much better! The Gunners began with their customary passing game and almost yielded a goal inside five minutes; van Persie and Fabregas worked a short corner, van Persie`s cross ricocheted around the box to Abou Diaby; who blasted goalwards, the ball hit Grella and hit the vast frame of the unknowing Robinson and out of harm`s way. From there on, Arsenal were subjected to the predicted aerial onslaught. Pedersen`s corner was headed weakly away by van Persie, Nelsen clambered above Song and sent a header towards the corner, but Cesc Fabregas was on hand to head it off the line. Arsenal kept conceding needless fouls inside Blackburn`s half, allowing Blobinson to plant his significant weight behind the ball and give it a good hoof into Arsenal`s area; stardust coating the ball as it piled back down into the Arsenal area. Pedersen- whose every throw in was met with a countdown by the travelling fans (the count always exceeded twenty until the ball was released), hurled another hurt bomb into the Gunners area, Chris Samba flicked it goalwards and Almunia showed great agility to palm the ball away from the top corner. Almunia had an assured game in the Arsenal goal. He didn`t allow himself to be intimidated and Rovers did not really try to bully him in the way they did Fabianski last season. For his faults, Almunia`s biggest attributes, along with his penalty saving, are his bravery and his handling. Both were faultless again yesterday.
The onslaught continued when Pedersen tossed another corner into the Arsenal area and Samba easily beat Diaby in the air, but headed just over. Having been pinned back into their own area for such a long period, Arsenal took the lead somewhat against the run of play. Song pushed the ball forwards to Arshavin, who did well to find van Persie having received the ball at an awkward angle. van Persie swivelled and played an inch perfect pass with the outside of his left foot to Theo Walcott careering in from the right, he took a touch before putting the outside of his right boot through the ball and into the bottom corner with such precision and venom that he literally burst the net. A triumphant chorus of, "Hansen, you`re a c**t" turned the grey skies blue temporarily. Watching Hansen squirm on the MOTD sofa last evening was a pleasure, to behold, but fair play to the Beeb and Match of the Day for confronting the issue rather than burying it as I expected them to. However, just as the vigour appeared to drain from Blackburn, the home side were on level terms within seven minutes. Samba was allowed to walk the ball past Diaby in the centre circle before turning the ball to El Hadji Diouf on the left, Sagna was caught too far upfield, leaving Koscielny in a straight race with Diouf, Koscielny misjudged the pace of Diouf, allowing him to the ball first before then lacking the strength to hold him off as Diouf sprinted the ball to the by line. Vermaelen and Clichy were in disarray as they allowed Mame Diouf to waltz into the six yard area unchecked to convert his namesake`s pull back. It was a disappointing goal to concede having repelled Rovers aerial attacks. The sense of foreboding was compounded when van Persie hobbled off with a twisted ankle.
In the second half, the visitors appeared calmer, they gave away less free kicks and the previously sloppy Song and Diaby became much more economical in possession. Pedersen tried a range finder from about 30 yards, but the home side`s chances were limited. Arsenal reassumed the lead on 51 minutes, Chamakh, whose work for the team was outstanding in the second half, found Sagna on the right hand side. He motored down the flank, before looking up and picking out Cesc Fabregas (but keep telling yourself and everybody else that his delivery is woeful by all means), Fabregas` shot unwittingly hit Walcott, the rebound broke to Arshavin, who kept his head to delightfully slot the ball beyond Robinson and a sea of bodies. Congratulations too to the chubby custodian, who has now conceded 50 goals to Arsenal in his career. No wonder you refuse to be 3rd choice for your country sir. From there Arsenal controlled the game, Rosicky came on for an off the pace Fabregas and nearly notched an assist straight away. He found Walcott in the Rovers half, who galloped towards the edge of the Blackburn area before sending a fierce drive just over from 20 yards. Blackburn did begin to turn up the heat, Vermaelen was guilty of trying to clear the ball with his left foot instead of his right, Kalinic seized on his weak clearance but smashed the ball well over. Then David Dunn worked himself some space in the area, but hit a tame shot at Almunia when he ought to have scored. Meanwhile, Arsenal looked dangerous on the break and should have wrapped the result up in injury time. Rosicky broke and found Walcott in the area, he tempted two defenders before shifting the ball left to Wilshere in space, but he slipped just as he shaped to shoot inside the area and Robinson`s belly repelled the shot.
Despite the succession of long throws and long balls, Arsenal held on for a significant result. Though I`m not quite sure why there was so much fuss before kick-off around this fixture. It was a tough test, no doubt, but Arsenal have lost once in their last nine trips to Ewood. The media would have had you believe pre match that Arsenal regularly came away from Blackburn cowering and whimpering like big, piss your pants girlies. The truth is, we usually win at Blackburn and win well, but the media`s pre conceptions of our aversion to agricultural football won`t go away easily. So when we go there again next season, expect the usual "Arsenal don`t like it up 'em" clichés to be wheeled out in full. The performance was a very good one; Koscielny looked like he will take time to adjust to his team mates, whilst rustiness was an issue for the midfield three, particularly in the first half. But for the most part, we fought the good fight, defended well and were clinical when chances came our way. The goalkeeper can be very pleased with his work and if his decision to throw his shirt in the crowd at the end can be interpreted as a goodbye (I`ve seen him do it before mind, but not often) then it was a good way to go out. A word on Chamakh, who really impressed me in the second half. When we were under pressure in the last ten minutes, he tracked back to where he knew his aerial prowess would be an asset to the team and allowed Walcott the chance to stay forward, where his pace was an asset on the counter. Chamakh strikes me as a real team player. As for Theo, he completed 90 minutes of a tough away game and contributed throughout. He actually takes the ball with him when he dribbles nowadays and all the while is looking a more confident, assured player. His goal was a carbon copy of one Bergkamp scored at the same end in 1998, whilst van Persie`s assist for the same goal also put one in mind of the Dutch master. We head into the international break on a high, just don`t be surprised in the build up to our next game against Bolton, if the media are still wheeling out their well worn clichés.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 2.DIABY, 4.FABREGAS(c) (7.Rosicky `67), 14.WALCOTT, 23.ARSHAVIN (19.Wilshere `83), 10.v.PERSIE (29.Chamakh `34). Unused: 11.Vela, 21.Fabianski, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs.