Arsenal 2 Birmingham City 1
The merciful end of another mind numbing international break was signalled on a day when pretty much everybody I know was at one of two matches. Given that my family has a burgeoning Brummie branch; many eyes were on the Grove yesterday. Meanwhile, a few miles from my home, Crystal Palace were playing Millwall, a match that pretty much splits my immediate social group in half. Pre match drinks saw glasses raised skywards with the news that Rich and Claire are to rear another young Gooner into the world. Support was also shown for Sam Allardyce`s campaign to kick perception out of football. That`s it Fatso, you stick it to the Descartes and Kants ruining our game obsequiously stroking their facial hair and pontificating with their berets and university degrees.
Having endured three disappointing results prior to the international break, the atmosphere was pensive, but the Gunners began well. With Fabregas` spell on the sidelines unexpectedly elongated, it was Wilshere who again picked up the creative baton. He sauntered forward to the edge of Birmingham`s box and exchanged passes with Chamakh; Wilshere drew the Birmingham defence with another disguised pass back to Chamakh, who looked to have the goal winking at him only to see his steered shot expertly blocked by Stephen Carr. The home side thought they had taken the lead after 17 minutes when Carr fouled Chamakh on the left hand side. Nasri swung the free kick in and his compatriot Sebastien Squillaci headed the ball into the roof of the net only to be halted in his celebrations by an errant offside flag. It looked a very generous award to me. The Gunners continued to pile the pressure on and nearly opened their account via the unlikeliest of sources. Nasri`s cross was headed out by Roger Johnson, Sebastien Larsson contrived to have something of a brain fart when he cumbersomely tried to lay the ball back to Carr in his own area, as usual, Clichy was quick to intercept but toe poked the ball centimetres wide of the post.
But a similar story looked set to unfold. Birmingham worked the ball down their left hand side, earning a throw in next to the Arsenal corner flag. The ball was worked back to Keith Fahey; the Blues have a striker that stands at 6 feet 8 inches, which makes Nasri`s complete apathy as he refused to close Fahey down and allowed the Irishman an uninterrupted cross, which Nicola Zigic towered above Djourou to head into the bottom corner. I can`t blame the defence for failing to out jump a player of that size, but it was imperative to stop Birmingham getting crosses to him and Nasri`s lack of awareness gave Chelsea their opening goal at Stamford Bridge when he let Cole in behind him. His paltry effort to shut Fahey down was not good enough. The visitors nearly crept into a shock two goal lead when Stephen Carr floated a free kick to Roger Johnson down the right, he headed the ball down into Arsenal`s six yard area, but serendipitously Zigic and Bowyer rather got in one another`s way and Zigic blasted the ball over.
But Arsenal did claim a deserved and needed equaliser four minutes before half time. I was rather left with the impression that it should have been Diaby sitting in midfield and Wilshere plundering forward. Whilst Diaby is a rangy player with great dribbling technique, his final ball usually has the subtlety and guile of an ice pick. Wilshere has the same dribbling ability and the final ball to boot and he proved it in City`s concession of a penalty. He probed forwards and fed the ball into Chamakh, the ball broke loose in the box and Scott Dann lunged only to find Chamakh had made up the ground and Dann tapped Chamakh`s trailing leg. Chamakh made sure the referee saw it, no question. But Dann didn`t get the ball and impeded Chamakh`s progress in the box. Penalty. Stop whingeing please. Nasri stepped up and steered the ball smartly into the bottom corner with Foster sprawling in the wrong direction. The more penalties you see Nasri take, the more you curse the heavens that he shirked at the Stadium of Light last month. Some needle developed in the game thereafter, Ridgewell kicked Nasri and Nasri retaliated. Nasri was booked, but Ridgewell wasn`t. Atkinson began to look thoroughly out of his depth as tempers flared; Roger Johnson gave Chamakh a quite deliberate whack on the back of the head which Atkinson did not deal with. The half time whistle came at the right time for some players who had lost their heads and for the referee who had lost control of the game.
Arsenal calmed themselves and reasserted their authority on the game, taking the lead four minutes into the second half. Wilshere again plundered forwards and played the ball to Song, Song acrobatically flicked the ball back to Wilshere, who took the ball on his chest before prodding through to Chamakh. It looked as though Carr would clear but he ducked the tackle, presumably tentative that Chamakh would look to exaggerate any sort of contact, Chamakh seized on the loose ball, taking it past Foster before prodding it into the unguarded net. You had the impression that Arsenal would use the goal as a launching pad for a comfortable victory, but two defeats and a gut wrenching last minute equaliser in the last three games had left visible scarring. Time and again Diaby was able to maraud forwards only to be let down by a slow Arsenal attack, leaving him a lack of options. Even when Diaby does have options, he often makes the wrong decision; with nobody in support he was rather hamstrung. The Gunners lacked the incisiveness in the final third to create further chances.
Diaby clipped a right wing cross which was over hit, but Clichy was rapidly onto the loose ball on the left touchline, prodding the ball into Arshavin in the channel, but with Dann at close quarters, he could only toepoke the ball straight at Foster. I know many were left frustrated with Arshavin`s listless performance yesterday, but I think I have more patience with him because I see him taking risks. When his passes weren`t coming off, there were audible groans, but 9 times out of 10, he was inches away from playing a team mate through on goal. However, Andrey, if you`re reading, please, please, please stop trying those stupid back heels. They`re not working. Nerves became frayed as the end of the game approached and Lukasz Fabianski was decisive in dealing with some Birmingham set pieces. In injury time, Wilshere blotted his copy book of an otherwise excellent display when he was sent off. He miscontrolled Song`s pass and lunged into a tackle which caught Zigic on the ankle. A reckless challenge that got the red card it deserved. I know a great many observers will be salivating over the challenge, they wilfully miss the point. Arsenal supporters and their manager have simply asked that the rules are applied when people tackle recklessly. On this occasion, it was.
Alex McLeish tried to use the incident as a plateau to park his soapbox on, bizarrely bemoaning the fallout of the Eduardo incident and what it had put Birmingham through. Yeah, sorry about what we put you through there Alex. You don`t have to do much research to discover that Wenger has spoken for the game of football and not just his own players when speaking out on bad tackling. In the wake of the Sunderland game, he said; "'I do not say I get an unfair press, it`s not about me this story, it`s about the players who play football with the right intention. Don't take me wrong we make as well sometimes bad fouls and I have the same responsibility than you.' Manager and player admitted liability here without resorting to the "he isn`t that sort of player and loves his mum" rubbish. Birmingham pushed in the final minutes; a game of head tennis broke out when Scott Dann looped a header dangerously into the area but Fabianski was brave and decisive in collecting the ball. It was enough to hold out for the final whistle, but I was still left frustrated with some of our players in the final minutes. Bendtner`s ill advised attempted flick, Song idiotically trying to take three touches in his own area in injury time when he should have put his foot through the ball. Refusal to do these sorts of rudimentary tasks has cost us points before and, I fear, will again because I don`t think we have learned. However, at this point, cold hard analysis is for another day. What was important was the win, we got it and we deserved it, that`s all that really matters. We lacked sharpness in the final third, but with this win under our belts and players returning, let`s hope that returns.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 27.EBOUE, 18.SQUILLACI(c), 20.DJOUROU, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 2.DIABY, 19.WILSHERE, 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN (7.Rosicky `70), 29.CHAMAKH (52.Bendtner `79). Unused: 11.Vela, 14.Walcott, 15.Denilson, 28.Gibbs, 53.Szczesny.