Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday January 30 2011
I must confess to not having taken this game too seriously when the draw was made. The feeling of anticipation was slightly different upon waking this morning, not a hint of nerves or even apprehension. I fell for that complacent practise of not speculating on the victory but rather the size of the margin. In hindsight, it`s worth pointing out that the score line achieved today would not have sufficed to knock Ipswich out on Tuesday evening. With the exception of the surprise inclusion of Nasri, it was pretty much the selection we all expected, with Almunia, Diaby and Squillaci all returning. Far from our most fluid eleven but plenty to win the game you felt.
There was little to dispel the feeling of comfort in the opening minutes. After only 3 minutes, the Gunners were ruing their first piece of profligacy. Eboue got to the by line, his cross was half blocked by McCombe, Bendtner worked to keep the ball alive with a deft backwards header which smuggled its way to Arshavin who, for about the hundredth time this month, lent well back and smashed the ball high over the bar from close range. You feel he needs a goal. Badly. The missed chance did not appear to deter him though, on twelve minutes he accelerated past Peltier on Arsenal`s left and drove in a low cross which was deflected before it reached Nicklas Bendtner, who amazingly missed the target from all of four yards. Nasri set the wheels in motion for another attack down the left with the Terriers hoping to hang on in there. Arshavin again twisted and turned, negotiating his way past Peltier, before turning his shot onto the outside of the post. Playing in Fabregas` advanced midfield role, Nasri was again the architect with a fine clipped pass, spotting Bendtner peeling away from McCombe on the back post, but Bendtner badly scuffed his attempted volley- much to the audible amusement of the 5,000 travelling Terriers fans.
But their mirth was short lived when Chamakh moved the ball inside to Nasri, who flicked the ball around the corner to the onrushing Bendtner on the right. The Dane controlled the ball and struck across the keeper, his finish aided by a serendipitous deflection off of Peter Clarke. Whether the ball would have gone in without the ricochet is open to debate, but it mattered little. Arsenal were ahead and it was hard to see anything other than a comfortable afternoon. However, Huddersfield had no intention of lying down. The busy Pilkington raced down the right past a very lacklustre Gibbs (the screams for him to replace Clichy have died down of late I note), his low cross seemed destined for the sliding Alan Lee, only for Squillaci to touch the ball around the post to safety. (Particularly as the linesman somehow gave a goal kick. I dunno, male linesmen, what do they know?) Hearts were a flutter when Denilson`s awful backwards pass went straight to Lee on the edge of the area, he spread the ball wide to Pilkington whose shot flew wide. Bendtner looked intent on trying to double his tally after collecting Arshavin`s cute back heel, but Bennett was equal to the strike.
But the Gunners` luck would change for the worst. Nasri chased down an Almunia long kick and immediately pulled up. Rosicky came on and Nasri hobbled off down the tunnel. With ties against Barcelona and the Carling Cup Final in sight, it`s bad news. The importance of keeping Messrs Fabregas and van Persie fit is magnified somewhat. Arsenal lost their mojo without the Frenchman and contrived to create very little of note. The visitors meanwhile, were buoyed by Arsenal`s inertia and might have scored when Pilkington headed Gudjonsson`s cross wide. Matters were complicated further four minutes before half time when Gibbs was caught well up field, Denilson provided cover in body, but his powder puff "tackle" when Jack Hunt galloped past him should shame him just a little. Hunt carried on past Koscielny and nudged the ball the other side of Squillaci. Squillaci put an arm out and took Hunt to ground. Difficult to argue with the red card there. Song was prepped to come on for the second half, meaning Arsenal were about to use the second of their three substitutes, hardly ideal in the circumstances. Arsenal did have a chance to stretch their lead in the opening seconds of the second half when Rosicky`s slide rule pass found Arshavin, but he could only blast into the side netting.
From there on in, it was all Huddersfield who dominated possession and began to pepper the Arsenal goal. Gary Roberts`s cross field pass once again found Gibbs all at sea and Gudjonsson seemed destined to score, only for Andrey Arshavin to throw his body in and block. You did read that correctly, Arshavin making a gutsy defensive block. What next? Women officials? Huddersfield began to sling the crosses into the Arsenal box, with neither Arsenal full back making a great deal of head way in stopping them coming in. Pilkington found McCombe with a searching ball which he headed inches past the post, whilst Roberts` cross was headed goalwards by Lee, only for Almunia to brilliantly palm the ball away from danger. Joey Gudjonsson hit a first time half volley which again whistled past the post. I was losing count of the amount of times Town saw chances that licked the woodwork on their way out of trouble. Arsenal`s goal was leading a charmed life, but the gypsy heather could work its magic no more. Pilkington swung a right wing corner into the area, Lee rose above Abou Diaby and powered a header into the roof of the net. At this stage, Huddersfield looked the side more likely to go on and win the game than Arsenal. But the away side rather froze after their equaliser and tried to protect the draw. The introduction of Fabregas also pinned them back.
With his first touch, Fabregas found Bendtner with an arcing pass that Bendtner headed down for Koscielny. He connected cleanly on the volley only for Clarke to block. Eboue collected the loose ball and crossed from the right only for Bendtner to head over. Arsenal had not seemed sure whether to stick or twist at 1-0 and a man down, Huddersfield`s equaliser had made their decision for them that they needed to attack and they looked much better for that certainty. Arshavin jinked past Peltier and teed up Bendtner in the area, but the Dane took an unnecessary touch before striking, allowing Peter Clarke to block. Fabregas, using Rosicky as his battering ram, was taking the game by the gonads. He slipped another ball into Bendtner, who fired over. Then another slide rule pass looked to have put him clean through, but Clarke came back with an astonishingly well time last ditch tackle. But the Gunners did eventually get their reward. Fabregas charged down Hunt`s clearance, leaving him to shimmy inside Hunt and pick a pass to Bendtner who had only the keeper to beat. But a shove in the back from Jamie McCombe saw the referee reluctantly give a penalty. That he didn`t send McCombe off is little short of a disgrace and a decision he will surely have to explain to his assessor tomorrow morning. If that doesn`t qualify as a "clear goal scoring opportunity" then let`s do away with the rule altogether shall we?
Fabregas stepped up and dummied twice before slotting his penalty low to Bennett`s right and into the net, much to the relief of a nervy North London crowd. Clattenburg gave further cause for dissention with his brilliant decision to book Fabregas for being kicked with the ball out of play and to give a phantom free kick which mystified even the Terriers fans behind the goal. When you award a decision and nobody in the stadium realises what you have given or why you have given it, you know you`ve had a stinker. Nevertheless, Arsenal held on and the fact that we are through is all that really matters. Huddersfield can be very proud of their approach and given that they forced 17 attempts at goal and finished with 58% possession will give them genuine cause to believe they were harshly done by. As for Arsenal, the red card complicated an already disjointed team, the interim between Nasri going off and Fabregas coming on was a barren period that frustrated. The team`s form of late has been founded on good partnerships throughout the side and you could see that understanding was absent. Even so, we should have had enough to see the game off more comfortably. But they say the luckiest team wins the F.A. Cup and with a couple of last gasp penalties against lower league opposition, Arsenal are certainly using theirs in 2011.LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 27.EBOUE, 6.KOSCIELNY, 18.SQUILLACI, 28.GIBBS, 15.DENILSON, 2.DIABY (4.Fabregas `69), 8.NASRI(c) (7.Rosicky `32), 52.BENDTNER, 23.ARSHAVIN, 29.CHAMAKH (17.Song H/T). Unused: 10.v.Persie, 14.Walcott, 19.Wilshere, 53.Szczesny.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday January 30 2011
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