Birmingham City 0 Arsenal 3
As mentioned in my previous match report, the timing of the Birmingham fixture could not have been more appropriate. I have family based in the city and it just so happened that my Birmingham based nephew turned 18 on Thursday, leaving me a decent excuse to spend a couple of days with my sister, taking in an 18th birthday party and New Year celebrations. Suffice to say, batteries are a bit low this morning as I prepare to journey back to London this afternoon. For once the 5.30pm kick off was somewhat merciful for the travelling hungover Gooners, I was able to leave base camp at 3.30pm for the short bus ride to Small Heath.
Positioned directly next to the pocket of Blues fans in the newly named Gill Merrick Stand as the temperature plummeted in the West Midlands. Arsene Wenger restored all eight of the players he rested for the game at Wigan. Birmingham meanwhile, fielded an unchanged side, the difference in the energy levels of the team were clear from the first minute to the last. Arsenal scented blood early on when Ben Foster erroneously picked up a back pass. Cesc and a celever dummy from Nasri teed van Persie up but his strike was clutched well by Foster from 15 yards. That was merely van Persie fine tuning his range. 13 minutes in he questionably won a free kick on the edge of the Blues box when Cesc's pass saw Scott Dann gently tug the back of van Persie's jersey. van Persie made a meal of it, but there was off the ball contact nonetheless. Certainly more contact than when Cameron Jerome used Djourou's shirt to fling himself to the ground and earn Djourou an undeserved booking. It was not quite an out and out dive from van Persie, but a piece of hystrionics nonetheless. The Dutchman dusted himself down and hit a left footed free kick, which clipped Lee Bowyer on the edge of the wall, which deceived Foster and spun into the net. It was van Persie's first goal from a free kick since October 2007.
van Persie ought to have extended Arsenal's lead on two occasions thereafter, firstly when he miscontrolled Cesc's pass with a clear shot in front of him. Secondly, when he collected Wilshere's pass in the left channel, but tried an intricate dink which Foster was equal to. The home side tried to edge their way into the game and warmed the palms of Lukasz Fabianski with Seb Larsson's free kick. The home side had a legitimate claim for a penalty when van Persie misjudged his header from Larsson's corner and handled it. It may not have been deliberate, but defenders do not always intend to trip attackers in the penalty area, it does not make it any less of a penalty when they have been fooled. The Gunners' number 10 was having a stinker of a game at this point, but had scored the crucial goal. I think that's called 'doing an Arshavin.'
The away side's hubris for defending set pieces was exposed as Birmingham missed an absolute sitter. Larsson's free kick was flighted towards Cameron Jerome, Koscielny made the decision to attack the ball and got nowhere near it, Jerome flicked on as ohnson drifted in behind the slumbering Alex Song but Roger Johnson amazingly contrived to steer the ball over the bar from six yards. Arsenal were well worth their lead at half time, but the lingering feeling was that we would be made to pay for our lack of ruthlessness in front of the opponent's goal. The feeling was not so much lingering as ominous five minutes into the second half, Walcott raced past Ridgewell on the right and clipped a cross to the back post, Nasri laid the ball back to Wilshere who fired his volley narrowly over. The Gunners were turning the screw and were left ruing their profligacy again when van Persie sent Nasri away. Nasri accelerated past Dann and Carr, but Ben Foster smothered Nasri's attempt.
Meanwhile, Lee Bowyer's vicious stamp on Sagna should see him landed in trouble with the F.A. He also took a nasty rake down the achilles of Sagna, whilst in the first half Cameron Jerome flicked out at Fabianski with the ball gone and also quite deliberately landed on Koscielny's thigh as he made bugger all attempt to try and hurdle him. Birmingham simply did not have the energy to play a high octane pressing game and instead resorted to thuggery, it's astonishing that McLeish continues to profess innocence as his instructions against Arsenal can only be to intimidate by fair means or foul. This is why players end up leaving football fields with oxygen masks strapped to their faces Big Eck. In that respect, the travelling fans were justified when they tunefully enquired of their hosts, 'Do you pay to watch this sh*t?'
But Arsenal did managed to put the Blues to the sword on 58 minutes, Fabregas and Nasri exhanged a beautiful couplet of passes which earned Nasri space on the edge of the box. He feinted to shoot before taking another touch and despatching a fine shot into the corner. The manager is correct to point out Nasri's effectiveness in the final third, but I have come to revel in his subtlety. The feint before the final shot took Foster off guard and allowed the shot to travel into the net untroubled. Thereafter, it was plain sailing for the Gunners and it wasn't long before they were three goals to the good. Fabregas and Nasri might as well have had their own ball at this stage, they exchanged a countless number of passes in and around Birmingham's box. Nasri moved towards goal, before tucking the ball back for the onrushing Fabregas. Foster beat Cesc's powerful drive out, the ball ricocheted off of Scott Dann back towards goal where Roger Johnson could not sort his feet out in time to prevent a comedy own goal.
The away side were in cruise control and could have added to their tally. Arshavin's shot was tipped wide by Foster, whilst Walcott roared onto Song's pass on the right, but Foster was again equal to Theo's shot towards the far corner. Arsenal had won the game at a canter and the sponsors named the Brum goalkeeper as man of the match, which sums up our dominance nicely enough. With the way results had gone earlier in the day, the pressure was well and truly on the Gunners to get the result and they did so in fine style. Birmingham looked jaded, but lest we forget that their Boxong Day fixture was called off, so they should have had more in the tank. Criticism was rife on Wednesday night when Wenger made a host of changes, but if people believe those changes contributed to the concession of two points at Wigan, surely it follows that those alterations contributed to the attainment of three points at St. Andrews as we were fitter, sharper and hungrier than our hosts. A win against Manchester City on Wednesday will have made this a very pleasing festive period indeed.LD.
21.FABIANSKI, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE (15.Denilson '72), 4.FABREGAS(c), 14.WALCOTT (23.Arshavin '72), 8.NASRI, 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 18.Squillaci, 27.Eboue, 52.Bendtner, 53.Szczesny.
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