West Bromwich Albion 2 Arsenal 2
The unusual phenomenon of an Arsenal free midweek left us somewhat kicking our heels (or, if you`re as sad as me, watching the Arsenal Reserves). The journey to the West Midlands was largely spent finalising plans for a weekend in Blackpool for the away fixture at Bloomfield Road in three weeks. I couldn`t help but rue the grim irony that we were making such plans whilst our neighbours were booking flights to Madrid. Comme ci comme ca. A smooth journey was then punctuated by a quick jar of the black stuff in the aptly named Royal Oak pub some ten minutes away from the ground. (What do you mean you don`t know why the Royal Oak is an apt name for a pub for an Arsenal fan? Come this way).
Jens Lehmann was given a warm welcome in the warm up, whilst news filtered through that Aaron Ramsey would start with the perennially injured Abou Diaby, errr, injured. What is he actually for nowadays? We knew that any positive result Arsenal garnered would unlikely be pretty, but it matters not at this stage of the season. Our style of play rather relies on everyone playing with confidence and that`s something that is in short supply amongst the squad at the moment. After just 3 minutes, the confidence was to take another body blow. Chris Brunt tossed in a left wing corner and Steven Reid rose easily above Aaron Ramsey to power a header into the net. Another set piece, another soft concession. The Gunners were rocked and the passing game disrupted. The lack of conviction almost manifested itself disastrously when Squillaci over hit a pass intended for Sagna, Jerome Thomas nicked in to intercept and sent a low cross across the six yard box which Odemwingie couldn`t reach.
But gradually Arsenal came back into the game, though found it next to impossible to pass through an organised Baggies side. Arsenal were often left with little option but to fizz the ball into the box. On one occasion; it nearly paid dividends. Arshavin played a one two with Clichy on the left; Clichy sent in an excellent looping cross which Robin van Persie headed against the face of the bar. The ball dropped for Aaron Ramsey who really should have done better from close range, but blasted straight at Scott Carson. West Brom did not even vaguely threaten for the rest of the half, but neither did Arsenal for all their possession. It was obvious we weren`t going to be able to pick through the Baggies defence. Deprived of Fabregas and Walcott, one again, there was next to no penetration. It was as poor a 45 minutes as I have seen from Arsenal this season. At half time, Wenger was left to unseal the envelope marked 'Plan B.` Chamakh came on for Denilson- the announcement was met with an enormous ironic cheer from the away support. Denilson`s confidence is at an all time low, the supporters are hardly helping. Still I`m left wondering what happened to the Denilson of two years ago.
With the Gunners being forced wide to send crosses in, it made sense to add greater aerial threat. The away side began the second period with much greater emphasis, moving the ball much more quickly. However, despite a bright start to the half, they nearly found themselves two down when Odemwingie played Thomas in down the left with Sagna too far advanced, Thomas delivered a low cross to Chris Brunt on the back post, but Brunt could only toe the ball wide. Arsenal went for broke and replaced Ramsey with Bendtner. Just as Arsenal were feeling their way back into the game, a colossal error made a recovery unlikely. Mulumbu hit a long cross field ball towards Odemwingie, Squillaci had the ball comfortably under his control but Manuel Almunia, for some reason known only to him, decided to try and sweep up, leaving Squillaci to clear the way for his goalkeeper. Trouble was Almunia got nowhere near the ball, leaving Odemwingie with the very simple task of gratefully sliding the ball into an empty net. The response of the away support was to chant Lehmann`s name, the big screen cut immediately to Jens` face on the bench. Even when he was in his prime, Jens was legendary for such brainless wanders out of his area himself.
A beleaguered Gunners side now needed to call upon their reserves of guts and endeavour. They showed plenty and for the first time in a number of weeks, Arshavin began to look interested. He sent a pass into the feet of Chamakh in the area and continued his run; the Moroccan prodded the ball back into the Russian`s path. Arshavin took one touch before despatching a shot into Scott Carson`s far corner. Game on. With a more physical front three, Arsenal were beginning to carry a more potent threat. Arshavin jinked to the by line on the left and sent a cross to the back post. It looked to have been over cooked by the Russian, but Bendtner was in no mood to give up the chase, craning his neck to nod the ball back into the six yard area. It got caught under the feet of Abdoulaye Meite and Robin van Persie was alive to tackle the West Brom centre half and scuff the ball into the net at a speed of roughly 0.000003 mph. It was exactly the sort of goal you need in a period like this.
With around thirteen minutes still remaining, the Gunners pushed on for the win. Though they were nearly caught cold when Fortune shimmied between Koscielny and Nasri to clear a path for goal, but Squillaci came across with an excellent block. Arsenal threw the kitchen sink at their hosts with a series of set pieces causing Baggie hearts to flutter. Nasri`s free kick looked set to scrape off of Squillaci`s bonce en route to goal, but was stolen away by Jonas Olsson. Nasri then fed the onrushing Wilshere on the edge of the box, but he fired over. Then Arshavin found van Persie on the corner of the area, the Dutchman nodded the ball down to Gael Clichy, but his half volley was palmed away by Carson. An almighty goalmouth scramble had teeth gnashing as van Persie`s corner was flicked on by Squillaci and Chamakh`s close range shot was blocked by Meite.
The clock ran down and Arsenal`s efforts were not to be fully rewarded. One has to commend the character to come back from two goals down in a fallow period for a team shorn of some of its best players. The team showed a character and guts that most accuse them of lacking, whilst the manager was able to make the relevant changes upfront and add an aerial presence when it was clear that our passing game wasn`t hurting West Brom also lends us a positive. But West Brom only registered two shots on target and did not have to work very hard to score either goal. We simply have to stop surrendering such cheap goals. It sounds like an obvious thing to say, but we make games about a thousand times harder for ourselves when we find ourselves a goal down under so little pressure. We give teams something to defend and we simply have to concentrate much, much better. United had a tough game yesterday whereby they played well below their abilities against stubborn opposition. But they stayed in the game because they kept a clean sheet- which always gives you a chance even on an off day. The destination of the title still rests in our hands. We were never going to win all ten of our remaining games and United are unlikely to garner a 100% winning record in the run in with other commitments making a mess of their fixture schedule. I hope that, at least, the comeback has slain some of the despondency in the team and the international break is, for once, well timed so the players can escape to another environment for ten days or so. Provided they all come back fit, it could do them a world of good. My final thought would be to share the sage words of a fellow travelling supporter leaving the stadium, upon seeing his mate in the concourse, he declared, "Could`ve been worse, should`ve been better."LD.
1.ALMUNIA, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 15.DENILSON (29.Chamakh H/T), 19.WILSHERE, 16.RAMSEY (52.Bendtner `56), 8.NASRI, 23.ARSHAVIN, 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 7.Rosicky, 13.Lehmann, 27.Eboue, 28.Gibbs, 48.Miquel.
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