Blackpool 1 Arsenal 3
It`s a well worn cliché, but this genuinely was one of the first fixtures I looked for last June when the schedules were released. Bloomfield Road has remained something of a mill around my neck since that time as it remained the only Premiership ground I hadn`t visited. But it was certainly no bad thing that the game did eventually fall on the hottest weekend of 2011 so far. Unfortunately, due to television`s fannying around with the date amidst possible Champions League participation, we were in no position to book train tickets until four weeks ago, meaning the chance of any cheap deals rather drifted off with Sky`s avarice. Nevertheless, we were undeterred and four of us decided to indulge for a weekend in the North West seaside town. We travelled up n Saturday morning with our party packs in tow and a throng of fellow Gooners appeared to take the same option. Though our arrival in Blackpool ushered in some light labour before the frolics could begin. The B & B I booked was some three and a half miles away from the town centre, but reassuringly close to a tram stop serving both the train station and the town centre. What the brochures did not mention was the fact that the tramline has been taken out of service until July. So the few tins consumed on the train were rather sweated out in the three and a half mile walk along Blackpool promenade in the stifling early afternoon heat.
Nevertheless, after our Herculean hike, we decided first to attack the Big One- the world`s highest rollercoaster- before more Bacchalian activities could commence. (Getting on an immense rollercoaster after several tumblers of Jameson`s didn`t strike me as a fantastic idea). With Tim, Terry and I suitably satisfied by the ride we met with Luigi and set off to the nearby Dutton Arms to talk culture, sociology and fine arts over a snifter of sherry. (N.B. This might not be a 100% accurate recall of what happened, for some reason, my memory of the day is fuzzy in retrospect. Strange that). From the Dutton Arms we ordered a taxi with the only instructions for him to "take us to the town centre." About half way through the journey, he pointed his head to his left and informed us, "There`s a brothel over there lads, I`ll take you if you want?" We declined his kind offer and moved into the town centre for yards and yards more nectar. After Terry`s amusingly impassioned rant to us about how we were still going to win the title, at around 2am we intended to find another club that was open. Our instructions to the next taxi driver were to take us somewhere that was lively and still open. So of course, without warning us in advance, he drove us to the brothel. Before you ask, none of us indulged! Not made of money you know…..
The next morning saw the reinforcement of a hangover slaying bacon butty called for as a matter of urgency, before meeting up with the rest of our nine strong away scheme contingent in the Manchester Bar, just a short stroll from Bloomfield Road for a few pre match liveners. The bar was packed solid with Gooners who appeared to likewise be in differing stages of a hair of the dog session. Shades and shorts were out in full supply as the sun kissed the stadium. As we made our way into the hastily assembled East Stand, news had filtered through that Manuel Almunia had been injured in the warm up and that Jens Lehmann would make an extraordinary Premiership comeback. I wonder what odds you could have had on Lehmann appearing in a Premiership fixture for Arsenal back in August. His popularity amongst the travelling contingent was affirmed in the opening sages, when Adam`s corner saw Ian Evatt arrive unmarked to head the ball over. Jens, as is his wont, went utterly postal at Diaby for having let his man go, which drew cheers of approval from the away end. But what a fair few people didn`t spot was that, as the Arsenal players celebrated their third goal, Lehmann ran forty yards to congratulate Diaby for his part in it.
Though Arsenal started slowly they stumbled upon a weakness in the Seasiders and began to exploit it ad infinitum. Whether it was porous defending on the Tangerines` part or the bright sun in their eyes, the Gunners were finding the lofted pass to van Persie was coming up pay dirt again and again. The Dutchman received an inch perfect lofted pass from Wilshere, but unusually, his touch let him down and the ball dribbled through to Kingson. The away side were slowly settling into the game and cemented their advantage after 17 minutes. Diaby won the ball in the centre circle, allowing Wilshere to release van Persie, who had peeled away to the left. Van Persie sent in a low cross and Charlie Adam had rather given up his tracking of Diaby`s driving run, allowing him to stroke the ball home from close range. Three minutes later, Arsenal doubled their money when Wilshere played a neat one two with Eboue in the channel, Eboue cut inside of Baptiste, before putting his laces through the ball with his left foot and powering the ball into the net.
Blackpool didn`t look like they were going to crumble so much as they looked fit to burst. Arsenal should have had the game finished well before half time but lack of precision in the finishing is becoming a familiar foe. Against Blackburn last week we had 22 shots. Only four worked Paul Robinson. Some shooting practise in training this week methinks. Fabregas was splitting Blackpool open at will, firstly when his lofted pass found van Persie, who provided the chest trap, but couldn`t get the ball out of his feet and hopefully stabbed the ball straight at Kingson. Cesc was the architect again as another flighted pass sliced Blackpool in twain, but Nasri`s subsequent volley bounced out to safety via the foot of the post. Yet another Cesc pass had the home defence hoping for an offside flag in vain as van Persie rounded Kingson, who had come out of his box and nudged the ball to Diaby. But Diaby opted to try and beat Evatt rather than just slotting the ball into an open net, which allowed Evatt to come back with a saving tackle. Only Arsenal can over elaborate in a two on one with a goalkeeper out of his area.
But the home side did give Arsenal a brief scare in first half stoppage time. Gary Taylor Fletcher smuggled the ball to the by line and cut back for Luke Varney, he prodded the ball goalwards but the ball`s progress was halted by a mixture of Koscielny and Lehmann`s legs- with Fabregas left to clear the danger. Ian Holloway obviously instructed his charges to press Arsenal a lot harder and a lot higher up the pitch. Blackpool nearly halved the deficit immediately after the half began when Charlie Adam`s clever low free kick caught the Arsenal defence off guard and Luke Varney prodded the ball just wide. But the home side soon did capitalise on the away side`s weakness and reduced the deficit when Jason Puncheon`s through ball found DJ Campbell, Lehmann was left with little recourse but to come out and he felled Campbell, but Lee Mason played an excellent advantage and allowed Gary Taylor Fletcher to caress the ball into an open net. A penalty might well have seen Lehmann sent off, with no reserve keeper on the bench, it might have left us dreadfully exposed.
Arsenal began to rock worryingly and were fortunate to be on the end of a less praiseworthy piece of officiating when Lee Mason somehow contrived to miss Laurent Koscielny`s blatant trip on Gary Taylor Fletcher in the area. It will be of no comfort to Blackpool to point out any decisions that have gone against us in recent weeks; we got lucky on this occasion and no doubt. Arsenal`s serendipity was extended as the charm lease on their goal was extended sufficiently to see Jamie Southern somehow head Baptiste`s cross wide from six yards without an Arsenal defender in spitting distance. Buttocks were vibrating amongst all those in Arsenal yellow. But gradually Arsenal settled back into their flow and could have scored when van Persie`s run into the channel showed up on Nasri`s radar, but van Persie could only pull his shot across the goal and wide. Van Persie then sent a stinging first time volley over the bar from Walcott`s cross which would have troubled the Goal of the Season panel had it sailed six inches lower and nestled into the top corner.
But with an assured grip on the game once more, Arsenal did restore their two goal cushion. Squillaci made a vital interception in his own area and the ball broke loose for Diaby, who protected it well despite the ravenous attentions of Gary Taylor Fletcher on the touchline. Diaby showed the strength and poise to outmuscle him and deliver a pass to Cesc on the halfway line; he touched it first time into the path of Walcott who sprinted clear, finding van Persie with an early low centre which van Persie easily converted. 16 goals and 8 assists in 18 starts in the league this year, giving him a direct goal involvement every 63 minutes. Better than any other player in the league. The goal was also a carbon copy of the one that finished off Wolves, the last time Arsenal won a weekend fixture on February 12th. Walcott always keeps his head and plays the ball early in those situations and makes the finisher`s job markedly easier.
Of course just as some of the more absent minded away fans began to "ole" Arsenal`s passing (the same ones that would accuse the team of complacency if they let a lead slip), Blackpool gave us another miniature scare when Clichy had another of his brain freezes and allowed Taylor Fletcher to dispossess him on the edge of his own box. Taylor-Fletcher played the ball to DJ Campbell, putting him through one on one with Lehmann, but the German spread himself well to make the save. Fabregas headed a Nasri corner narrowly wide, but the rest of the match passed largely without incident. It was a rather frantic game as you`d perhaps expect between two such enterprising sides, there was evidence of defensive weakness and poor finishing from us, but ultimately, with the exception of one ten minute spell, we dominated the match and, at this point, with confidence this low, the points on the board were the most important thing. Of course, by the time we had boarded our train back to Euston, a rather different type of board was at the forefront of the discussion other than the points one.LD.
13.LEHMANN, 27.EBOUE, 18.SQUILLACI, 6.KOSCIELNY, 22.CLICHY, 2.DIABY, 19.WILSHERE, 4.FABREGASc (16.Ramsey `87), 8.NASRI (28.Gibbs `85), 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcott '600, 10.v.PERSIE. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 29.Chamakh, 52.Bendtner.
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