Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday May 16 2011
The last home game of the season is usually a time for boundless optimism, speculation as to the possibilities that the summer and a new campaign could bring. Yesterday was more like a funeral. Only noisier, with discontented grumbling throughout. It was easy to understand, the fare the team has served up since February has been quite awful. Pockets of discontented grumbles and moans have been commonplace at home games for some years now, but as the supporters sang, "6 per cent, you`re having a laugh" it was the complete dénouement for the players, the manager and the board. This was choreographed, contrived. Everybody was on the same page. The price rise issue is one I think the board will rue. I began to seriously wonder whether an orchestrated call for the manager`s head might follow. It didn`t materialise, but it`s not far away. Let me tell you.
We started the day by watching Chelsea suffer a last gasp equaliser against Newcastle, leaving the door slightly ajar for a creditable second place finish. But this clearly hasn`t been much of a carrot for the players and we are now more likely to finish 4th than not. The welcome reappearance of Thomas Vermaelen gave the crowd a lift as the teams emerged for kick off. That was about as fun as it got. After only 15 minutes, the game was already lost. Firstly Kyle Walker had time and space in abundance to pick out a flighted ball to Darren Bent in the penalty area, with Squillaci sleeping. Bent in turn had an ocean of time to control the pass and loft it over Szczesny. The air in the stadium turned royal blue just three minutes later. James Collins found Ashley Young on the left, Vermaelen slipped, allowing Young to play a slide rule pass to Darren Bent who again tucked the ball gleefully past Szczesny. As Spurs struggle with a limp pack of strikers, you can`t help but feel they sold the best one they`ve had for years. Bent scores regularly and against the big teams to boot. Many frowned upon the £24m price tag, but his goals have kept Villa in the Premiership and Premiership survival is worth a good deal more than £24m.
Arsenal looked stung, lifeless and not sure how to respond. Like they`d been levelled by a stranger in the street. Aaron Ramsey was clearly felled in the penalty area by Richard Dunne, which referee Michael Oliver somehow missed, but the appeals were half hearted from players and supporters. Frankly, it didn`t feel like it mattered much. One player whose mojo has not dropped in the last 3 months has been Robin van Persie and, with Fabregas injured, the Dutchman seemed to realise that if Arsenal were to garner anything from the game, he would most likely have to do it all by himself. He came close when he cranked out some space on the corner of the area and lashed a shot against the base of the post. Two shots, two goals for our opponents, whilst Arsenal reaffirm their love affair with the woodwork. Groundhog Day. The half time whistle was greeted with a period of sustained and vociferous booing. I didn`t join in myself, but I understood it. The supporters felt the game was worth turning up for, so we really did have the moral high ground over the players in that respect.
Arsenal`s subs warmed up by hitting crosses into the area for Marouane Chamakh and sure enough he entered the fray in place of Squillaci, who had had a wretched half. But it was Villa who carried more threat coming forward on the counter attack. Bent went clean through at the half`s beginning, but Szczesny made a good save with his legs. The Gunners looked better than they had in the first half- which wasn`t much of an achievement it must be said. Ultimately, it was more repetitive sideways passing at a snail`s pace which Villa were rather comfortable with. Van Persie did eke out some space in the area, feeding the incoming Gibbs, but Friedel was out to make a smart block. The natives became restless when the stadium announcer reminded supporters of the "lap of appreciation" post match. "6% you`re having a laugh" rang out from the stands. Ouch.
Villa broke at speed once more when Young found Downing on the right, he fired a shot goalwards, but Szczesny stood up to block. Arsenal thought they had grabbed a lifeline when Chamakh rose to head home Walcott`s cross, but the referee chalked the goal off. I have yet to see a replay, but I didn`t see any shove the Moroccan forward, but I might be wrong. The Gunners did eventually find a goal through the most obvious of scorers. Sagna tossed in a cross from the right, Nicklas Bendtner grappled and tried to dribble his way through in the box, the ball fell kindly for Robin van Persie who poked home his 21st goal of the season. I make that 20 goals in 21 games. Astonishing player, we`re conversely rather fortunate that he is considered injury prone, or else the vultures really would be circling for a player that could walk into any side in world football. I`m of the opinion that the best centre forward in the world currently wears an Arsenal shirt and for that, we should be grateful and find a crumb of comfort amidst a miserable three months.
The lap of appreciation was a hasty and demure affair, most headed for the exits in the most damning form of visual protest possible. I stayed myself, but most around me didn`t. I don`t judge those people, I just felt- with the exception of the last two games- the effort has been faultless this season, even in our most inept moments the players have visibly tried. The manager looked a very weary individual as he passed us in the East Stand. I hate seeing him the way I`ve seen him in the last few months. I don`t doubt his desire, his effort, his commitment are stronger than ever. I think his players have let him down- which of course raises uncomfortable questions about him. Shortly after the second goal, I looked over to the bench and he sat forlorn, his arms folded, his legs crossed. He hasn`t been able to motivate his players for some weeks and I think that hurts him. I think we might be in for a busy summer in terms of outages. We picked our mood up slightly post match with a delightful steak and far, far too much red wine at Garufa`s on Blackstock Road. Consequently, my eyes are droopy and my head is swimming this morning. A colleague in the office joked that I should start saving up for a trip to Eastern Europe in mid August for a qualifier. We`re going to finish a two horse race in 4th place- which is an indictment on our current squad. Something needs to change, I`m just not sure I know what it is.LD.
53.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 18.SQUILLACI (29.Chamakh H/T), 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 19.WILSHERE, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT, 23.ARSHAVIN (52.Bendtner `62), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 13.Lehmann, 15.Denilson, 27.Eboue, 44.Henderson, 48.Miquel.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Monday May 16 2011
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