Newcastle United 4 Arsenal 4
With the kick off at St. James Park at 3pm on a Saturday for the first time for Arsenal since December 1997, a trip North East, for once, did not entail a ridiculous departure or arrival time. With that in mind, we booked up a train from King`s Cross- the mercy of travelling by rail meant I had a couple of hours extra to sleep off a hangover. Terry, Luigi, Kev and I arrived at King`s Cross shortly before 10 am, clutching our four packs of tinned breakfast. Hangover plus Tyskie, plus scrambled egg and beans on toast for breakfast, resulted in some quite toxic flatulence from yours truly which I gladly distributed piecemeal throughout the journey north. With four tins of quality Polish lager polished off by the time of our arrival at Newcastle station, naturally our first mission was to find a local speakeasy.
Lloyd`s in Westgate Street slaid our thirst sufficiently before taking the short walk to St. James Park. Those of you that have been will recall with relish the climb of death into the away enclosure, a full 14 flights of stairs up into the gods. Fortunately, Lord Lowe and I are canny enough operators that we also know where the elevators are, making for a comfortable ascent into the pack of 3,000 wheezing Gooners. But the wheezing soon turned to gasps of exasperation as Arsenal raced out of the blocks. Van Persie found Diaby with a neat pass in midfield, who in turn nudged the ball to Arshavin. The Russian showed felt of mind and foot with a first time shuffled pass round the corner for Walcott- who raced away from Newcastle`s chundering backline so effectively in the Beer Cup in October, Walcott wheeled away from the struggling Coloccini and steered the ball past Harper with an early finish. The first 60 seconds had not yet elapsed. Less than two minutes later, Arsenal were racing away to three points. A foul by Nolan on Fabregas yielded a free kick, which Arshavin nonchalantly whipped into the area and Johan Djourou rose like a salmon to head a looping effort into the net for his first ever Arsenal goal. We have been looking very dangerous from set pieces of late and I would put that down to much better delivery. It`s become a standing joke that Arsenal`s corners seldom beat the first man. We have good headers of the ball when the delivery is good enough.
Arsenal were simply toying with Newcastle at this point and found themselves three nil up before the clock had huffed into double figures. Diaby spread the ball wide to Walcott, who negotiated his way to the by line and tucked the ball back into the area for Robin van Persie to lash home right footed. An almost identical effort to his first goal against West Ham. Newcastle looked shell shocked and the thoughts turned to perhaps having the luxury of giving the likes of Fabregas and van Persie the last half an hour with their feet in soak. That feeling was rather redoubled half way through the first half. After some delicious one touch passing, the ball worked its way out to Sagna on the right; he whipped in a tantalising cross which Robin van Persie only too happily headed past Steve Harper with the Magpies defence staring on in disbelief. Remember that Rafa Benitez, "it`s all over" gesture? I did that when the fourth goal went in. The Gunners largely held firm for the rest of the half, the defence blunting Newcastle`s impotent attacks. The only other real point of note was Phil Dowd`s quite extraordinary decision not to even award a foul for this challenge on Arshavin by Barton. If you cannot see that is a foul from the distance Dowd is that, it`s quite simple, don`t be a referee, you`re not cut out for it. Phil Dowd shouldn`t be an official for the same reason I shouldn`t be a heavyweight boxer.
But the pattern of the game changed irrevocably shortly into the second half. Joey Barton steamed through the back of Diaby with the sort of reducer tackle you get a lot from Barton. The way Diaby`s leg bends on contact shows he was lucky not to be seriously injured by Barton`s reckless tackle. Having already had his ankle damn near chopped off by another nameless thug, it`s understandable Diaby was angry. But in grabbing Barton around the neck was asking for a red card and utterly stupid. Barton was looking for a reaction and he got one. Don`t get me wrong, as tempting as it must be to throttle Barton (I for one, wouldn`t mind doing some tap dancing all over his face) it was utterly stupid. There is clearly little love for Barton in the Arsenal camp, with the spat with Nasri fresh in the minds and after Barton`s poor challenge on Arshavin in the first half, Diaby appeared to take exception. With injuries to Song and Denilson, Arsenal did not have anybody else to keep the ball ticking over in midfield. Djourou too hobbled out of the game with a very worrying knee injury and the pattern of the game was reversed. Every time Arsenal cleared the ball, it just came straight back with no buffer in the middle of the park.
Though Arsenal initially repelled Newcastle`s advances rather well, they had no answer to the potency of Phil Dowd. Barton clipped a corner into the box and the loose ball was contested by Koscielny. Leon Best went to ground and the ref gave a rather soft penalty. It was clearly a case of Dowd feeling sorry for the side that is taking a beating, but you probably do get those at home when you`re four goals down. Barton nonchalantly stroked the penalty home. Szczesny clutched the ball in his grip, resulting in Kevin Nolan throwing him to the ground by the scruff of the neck. Dowd`s reaction was to book Szczesny and Nolan. A quite spectacular piece of inconsistency from a referee who began to run the game in a strange fashion from this point. Whether that was down to ineptitude or an intentional message on behalf of the referee`s union after the Fabregas storm in a teacup is anyone`s guess, but I don`t think it`s really important, you get the same result either way. You can see Wilshere say to the assistant referee, "He (Dowd) f****g sent Diaby off for that."The last three matches have seen Clattenburg, Mason and now Dowd award incredibly strange decisions against us, karma would dictate we`re due four or five questionable decisions. I won`t hold my breath though. I am rather sick of paying ticket money and feeling as though the person in charge of the game is having a laugh at our expense.
Newcastle had the feint whiff of fear in their nostrils and began to pile the pressure on. Nile Ranger replaced Lovenkrands and his greater mobility caused Arsenal problems. Gutierrez`s cross found Nolan in the area and his header was beaten away by Szczesny. Arsenal brought Tomas Rosicky on who had something of a nightmare twenty minutes. It was his misplaced clearance that went straight to Barton and Barton`s through ball found Leon Best but his goal was incorrectly chalked off for offside, with Rosicky- standing right in front of the assistant, playing him on. Another very poor decision and one we benefitted from on this occasion. But with no outlet to relieve the pressure, Arsenal`s game became panicky and error strewn. When a team has the impetus behind them, the little breaks begin to go their way. Jose Enrique threw in a cross from the left, which Clichy and Leon Best competed for. The ball dropped very kindly for Best who swept the ball home for 4-2. You sensed that the last 15 minutes were now going to be incredibly hard work as the home side continued to press. Guttierez played a ball into Nile Ranger, who showed a beguiling shift of feet to take him past Squillaci but his shot was saved by Szczesny. Ranger again caused problems (it was he who Koscielny hauled down in the league defeat at the Grove in November) when he looked set to collect Nolan`s pass for a clear run at goal but Szczesny was out smartly to his feet.
Arsenal simply could not get a grip on the game and with possession at such a premium and van Persie only getting long balls to feed on, either Bendtner or Chamakh had to come on at that stage. That the manager felt Eboue was the sort of character to sure the game up and fight the good fight is baffling. What was more baffling still was Dowd`s next intervention. Barton hit a free kick which sailed long and out of play, yet for some reason he gave a penalty. I have watched the incident back several times and I still have no idea what the offence is supposed to have been. Clichy and Squillaci jump for a header with Williamson and they all miss it. There is not the slightest contact, yet Dowd gets whipped up in the frenzy of a remarkable comeback and points to the spot. It was an outrageous decision and one Dowd should be frantically explaining to his supervisor this morning in hope of holding onto his job. I don`t doubt that no such conversation will take place though. In any case, Barton stepped up and only just scored, as Szczesny kicked out a leg but could only deflect it into the roof of the net. With seven minutes left, it was squeaky bum time. I had all but accepted an equaliser as inevitability.
Rosicky horribly miscued his clearance on the edge of his own box, sending the ball spinning into the air, as he and Barton challenged for the high ball, Barton needed no persuading to hit the floor histrionically and Phil Dowd duly complied with Barton`s instruction and gave a free kick. Clichy headed the initial delivery clear but the ball fell invitingly for Tiote who hit an excellent left foot volley which travelled into the bottom corner uninterrupted. You felt the Gunners were going to have to hold out for the draw now, and Nile Ranger put his effort just wide with the clock showing 90. Van Persie had a deflected shot into the net ruled out for offside at the other end, I have not seen the incident back to make a judgement as to whether it was or not, though it looked borderline enough to me. In the end, it was a bizarre and cruel way to lose a lead that looked unassailable even by our standards. The twin blow of the Djourou injury and the sending off within two minutes of one another unsettled us and Newcastle seized on that uncertainty, aided in no small part by an official that should be staring down the business end of a s**t sandwich from his superiors this morning. Nevertheless, in spite of this, no team can lose a four goal lead in 20 minutes and not look at themselves. Diaby`s selfishness proved costly and nobody seemed to be able to steer the team when the waters became choppy. This doesn`t have quite the same feel as other more recent capitulations in that there appeared to be a lot going on we could do little about. But the fact that there are so many capitulations to use as a frame of reference is troubling. I wrote in my Spurs match report from November that we had, in effect, made every single game difficult now because teams know that, even when we`re four goals up, we`re still vulnerable and there`s still reward to be had for them. The journey home was cheered slightly by the purchase of a few more tinnies of Red Stripe as well as the news that a United defeat meant we could celebrate "Invincibles Day" and actually finish the day closer to United than we started it. What was it Ferguson once said? "Football eh? Bloody hell."LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 20.DJOUROU (18.Squillaci `49), 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 2.DIABY, 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGAS(c), 14.WALCOTT (27.Eboue `77), 23.ARSHAVIN (7.Rosicky `71), 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 1.Almunia, 28.Gibbs, 29.Chamakh, 52.Bendtner.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA