Norwich City 1 Arsenal 2
After two long weeks forced to go cold turkey, Norwich away couldn`t come quickly enough. With an 8am train steadfastly booked at a knockdown price, it was an early start. Nut the dark wintery morning could not dampen our spirits, with our tinnies of red stripe for company. Apart from Swedish Kris. He brought a fresh, unopened bottle of Jack Daniels. A nourishing breakfast indeed. He would end the day with an unsightly cut on his eye obtained from doing his Ronaldo flop in the aisle of the train. This was shortly after he ate a plant and shortly before catching forty winks in the luggage compartment of the train. It was that sort of away day.
Our train pulled into Norwich station shortly before 10am where the police helpfully shepherded us into the Compleat Angler pub, which had opened early in anticipation of our arrival. How kind. Before the clock had struck midday, some six pints of Norfolk`s finest had passed my gullet. The vocal chords were well oiled and it seemed everyone else`s were too when we made our way to the ground. So much so that, somehow, a song we had adapted in a Marseille night club actually came to pass. (Gervinh-o-o-o, to the tune of JLS 'You Make Me Wanna.` I know, it`s JLS. But we were very drunk).
It looked like the interlull had done little to halt Arsenal`s momentum. Theo Walcott, who gave Paul Tierney a torrid time on the right hand side, set the tone for another productive game by motoring past Tierney and pulling a cross back for van Persie, who scuffed his effort wide. Van Persie was merely tuning up. Andre Santos made an intelligent interception high up the field, van Persie was, as usual, immediately on the move, finding a corridor of space between full back and centre half. Santos obliged with the pass and van Persie shot narrowly wide from the angle.
It looked to be simply a matter of time before Arsenal took the lead. Mikel Arteta won a 50-50 in central midfield; the ball fell invitingly to Gervinho who probed in field. He found Walcott on the right, who showed great composure to feint inside Leon Barnett, before curling a left footed shot past John Ruddy, only to find Martin had stationed himself behind his keeper and brilliantly hooked off the line.
But just as the Gunners were in their stride, Steve Morison knocked them out of it- both literally and metaphorically. Paul Tierney`s hopeful long ball from left back looked to have found Steve Morison in an offside position. Nevertheless, play was allowed to continue. Koscielny switched off and didn`t get round to cover his centre half, whilst Mertesacker allowed the ball to bounce several times and was easily swotted aside by Morison, who ran through to lift the ball over Szczesny and give the Canaries a shock lead.
But the Gunners have formed something of a backbone over the last few weeks and they didn`t allow the mishap to unduly bother them. Santos again found van Persie, who had peeled off into some space between Norwich`s midfield and defence, before popping an exquisite first time reverse ball to Gervinho. The Ivorian made a beeline for goal, one on one with Ruddy, but the keeper got a hand to his finish allowing Kyle Naughton to complete a goal line clearance.
But the Gunners kept their patience and were duly rewarded before half time. Van Persie curled a ball to Walcott out on the right with the outside of his left boot. Walcott knocked the ball past Tierney before sprinting around the other side of him. Walcott`s final ball is improving all the time and so it proved this time. A low cross across the Canaries area saw Gervinho horribly miss an attempted back heel finish, but van Persie made no such mistake stroking the ball into an empty net. It ensured Arsenal were on an even keel at half time, which was the least we deserved. My keel wasn`t quite as even. I recall briefly chatting with the great and good of Gingers 4 Limpar in the concourse. I remember very little about what I actually said. But I think I marginally avoided dribbling when I spoke.
The second half continued much in the same vein as the first had, with Arsenal well on top. Aaron Ramsey found Thomas Vermaelen (or "Thomas from Ireland" as me and mine are fond of calling him) - outstanding all afternoon- on a foray on the left wing. Vermaelen looked up and found Gervinho with an inch perfect cross, but the Ivorian`s sizeable forehead could only direct the ball straight at Ruddy. Gervinho had threatened all afternoon, but his finishing was stinking the joint out. Maybe the JLS chant was putting him off.
Vermaelen then hit an arcing cross field pass to Walcott on the right, stretching Norwich`s struggling defence. Walcott delivered another precise cross which met the run of Ramsey at the front post, but the Welshman could only guide the ball into the side netting. Another excellently won tackle by Arteta in midfield found van Persie. The Dutchman executed a perfect through ball to find the run of Gervinho. He looked to have skipped around Ruddy but as he rolled his shot goalwards, the Norwich keeper made an amazing recovery to block. Gervinho isn`t as talented as Nasri I don`t think. But he`s a big improvement simply because he hurts teams a lot more than Nasri`s brand of excruciatingly slow, impotent midfield passing compared with Gervinho`s penetration in the final third.
But there simply aren`t many footballers on the planet that can hurt teams in the final third like Robin van Persie can. Ryan Martin made a hopeful run into Arsenal`s midfield. Ramsey burgled him of possession, before Martin tripped him. Phil Dowd played an excellent advantage; Alex Song prodded forwards and played a simple through pass to van Persie. The absolute instant Song released the ball, Lord Lowe said to me, "Well, he`s not gonna miss." Sure enough van Persie delivered a sumptuous dink over Ruddy into the net. Frankly I can`t be arsed to tell you how good van Persie is anymore. You can all see. You all know. The movement, the decision making, the finishing. He`s moving towards the sort of status enjoyed by the likes of Bergkamp, Pires Henry etc, etc.
The Gunners ought to have extended their advantage, but there again, never looked like conceding it either. Pilkington scuffed Bennett`s low cross. Whilst hearts were in mouths when Grant Holt fell over thin air in the penalty area and Dowd blasted on his whistle. Fortunately, it was to dish out the booking that the appalling piece of play acting deserved. Neither Match of the Day nor Goals On Sunday deemed it worthy of a slot on their highlights package. Walcott rattled the outside of Ruddy`s post with a fierce shot from a tight angle.
But the Gunners held on for a deserved and pleasing three points. With our train back not leaving Norwich until 5.30pm, a good few hours of debauchery in the Compleat Angler followed, before purchasing the tinnies that would keep us company en route back to London. All in all a thoroughly pleasing away day. Aside from one hiccup, there was a defensive assurance about the performance. Arsenal have been able to field the same front three and the same midfield three for much of the last two months and that`s really beginning to show itself in the understanding between them. That will change in the coming weeks- out of necessity as much as anything. But the final product Walcott is providing becomes more encouraging by the game. The midfield three looks more secure, the backline looks tighter. Slowly, it seems progress has arrived. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 6.KOSCIELNY, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN, 11.A.SANTOS, 17.SONG, 8.ARTETA, 16.RAMSEY, 14.WALCOTT (20.Djourou `89), 27.GERVINHO (30.Benayoun `76), 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 7.Rosicky, 21.Fabianski, 23.Arshavin 29.Chamakh, 39.Coquelin.
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