Arsenal 3 Norwich City 3
I have maintained anxiety in the race for third for a number of weeks now. Sans Arteta and Walcott the side doesn`t appear to function the same, other key players have been stretched to braking point whilst many a squad player has barely had a kick. Still, Arsenal`s destiny stayed in their own hands. But the "mind the gap" gloating by a good portion of the fan base over the last few weeks had plenty of potential to back fire. Counting your chickens can lead to egg on your face. Still, the build up was relaxed enough despite the dreary November weather. A pre match conference with girlfriend and mother ensuring that.
But the Gunners got off to the best possible start inside just 2 minutes. Tomas Rosicky sprayed the ball to the left, finding birthday boy Yossi Benayoun. Kieran Gibbs made a deceptive overlapping run, which Benayoun used to shimmy his way past Martin before bending a delicious curler into the top corner. It should have been the platform for a comfortable afternoon, instead it was merely an excuse to sit back as, once again, this team committed the cardinal sin of believing they had accomplished well before time. It`s become an endemic and disturbing part of this side`s make up. Norwich began to dominate possession in the midfield. Ramsey`s legs looked heavy as his attempts at closing down were weary. But they bested Song`s "effort", which screamed "the big I am." The Canaries might have levelled when Jackson crossed for the left; Szczesny was in no man`s land as Holt headed the ball just over.
The warning signs were there but not heeded. Only a superb last ditch block from Kieran Gibbs prevented Hoolahan from equalising from close range. But Elliott Bennett found Naughton`s over lapping run from right back, which went untracked. His low cross picked out Hoolahan, who was unmarked, and his shot squirmed through Szczesny`s grip and into the net. But if that goal was an example of comedy defending, there was an unpleasant hint of arrogance in the concession of the second. Vermaelen galloped forward from centre half completely needlessly. Below me Kieran Gibbs, at left back, bellowed himself hoarse to Alex Song to cover. Song looked around but ignored his junior teammate. None of this defending lark for the mighty through ball king. The result was inevitable Norwich broke. Vermaelen barely jogged back, Ramsey jogged, Song ran then stopped. Holt found Hoolahan on the left with only Gibbs and Koscielny attending to their defensive duties, Hoolahan then teed up Holt whose shot deflected in off the sole of Gibbs` boot. It was a well deserved lead.
The Gunners barely looked threatening with the visitors more likely to stretch their lead on the counter, given Arsenal`s total disregard for tracking back. Gervinho did smuggle his way past Martin in the area and pulled back for Gibbs, but his reluctance to do anything at all with his right foot saw him drag the shot wide with his left. The players left the field at half time with the boos ringing in their ears. One imagines Wenger`s boot awaited all of their backsides. It appeared to work as the Gunners quickened the tempo. They still had a hard time breaking through, hence the introductions of Chamberlain and Chamakh- who looked livelier than he has at any time during the last 18 months. Chamakh`s arrival at least occupied the Canaries defenders and freed up van Persie- though he did screw a right footed shot wide.
Arsenal eventually found their equaliser when van Persie found Rosicky in the area, he missed his shot and the ball fell to Chamakh, whose effort was blocked. The ball wormed its way out to Song, who attempted his sixth through ball of the game. It proved to be the sixth time lucky as he found van Persie on the back post, who beautifully cushioned the ball past Ruddy. But with Chamakh in the area for the cross, Norwich all of a sudden had more than one player to mark. Arsenal scented blood and moved ahead minutes later. Gervinho found Rosicky, who moved the ball into the area. Chamberlain tried a flick which ricocheted fortuitously to van Persie. The Dutchman made no mistake, sweeping the ball in via the underside of Ruddy. Referee Anthony Taylor then unbelievably chided Szczesny for time wasting having tolerated Ruddy`s for a good hour previously. One wondered whether he was deliberately taking the piss.
Now all that was required was a little professionalism and solidity. It was a forlorn wish. Norwich could have equalised when Coquelin- on for the injured Sagna, tried to head the ball back to his keeper and made a hash of it. Wilbraham pulled back for Hoolahan, who skied his effort. Then slapstick came right back en vogue. Song had the chance to lay off a simple pass in midfield. But Billy Big B******s syndrome blighted him once again, hilariously overcomplicating the issue before tamely giving possession straight back to Norwich. This is a young man who is totally forgetting himself. Howson lifted the ball into Steve Morison. Where Vermaelen was at this point was a total mystery. But then much of the Belgian`s defending has been for the last 6-8 weeks. Good will and the immense form of Koscielny has masked him from criticism. Morison took a touch, set himself, before slamming the ball into the far corner. 3-3.
Still there was time for more drama. Referee Anthony Taylor watched Wilbraham nail Koscielny with two elbows in the space of a minute. One yellow card the result. Unreal. Arsenal might have moved back into the lead when Rosicky`s dinked through ball found van Persie onside, but his finish was well blocked by Ruddy, Chamakh headed the rebound agonisingly wide. But Anthony Taylor saved his best party piece for last. Chamberlain`s low cross was flicked on by Gervinho leaving Robin van Persie, double player of the year and golden boot winner elect with an open goal, a yard out in the last minute. Naughton desperately shoved van Persie and immediately, in his panic, turned to the referee waving his arms. A pretty sure sign of guilt apart from, you know, the laws of gravity, which determined that RvP ended up in the back of the net. Goal kick said Taylor. Arsenal haven`t won a single penalty at home in the entire league season. It`s hard to say anything about Taylor`s decision without inviting libel, it was that shocking. Almost as shocking as Arsenal`s defending had been all afternoon.
Still there was time for more as Song flicked Chamakh`s cross goalwards only to be denied by Ruddy. Gervinho`s cross found Vermaelen unmarked on the back post, but he lost his head and just smashed the ball across goal. Koscielny then crossed the ball back into the area, Gervinho flicked back across goal and Gibbs stole in, looking certain to net the winner, only to find Ruddy in inspired form with a brilliant stop. Though we can grumble at the referee, it`d be far more productive to grumble at the team. The lack of commitment to defending, the lack of tracking back. We obviously have more gears to go through despite the fatigue, because we showed it in the second half. Then having hauled ourselves back into the game, we inexplicably lost our heads and surrendered it again. The overcomplication in simple situations, the team sprint to attack but barely muster an amble when it comes to defending. Norwich deserved their draw with an enterprising performance that could have put them out of sight before half time. Only by virtue of Spurs slipping up at Villa does our destiny stay in our own hands. But I wouldn`t crack out the St. Totteringham`s Day champagne yet. This team shows a complete lack of resilience to pressure. Next Sunday is going to be an arse clenching kind of day. LD.
ARSENAL: 13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA (39.Coquelin `33), 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY (15.Chamberlain `63), 7.ROSICKY, 27.GERVINHO, 30.BENAYOUN (29.Chamakh `69), 10.v.PERSIE(c). Unused: 9.J-Y.Park, 11.A.Santos, 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski.
NORWICH CITY: 1.RUDDY, 25.NAUGHTON, 19.LAPPIN, 6.R.BENNETT, 2.R.MARTIN, 8.JOHNSON, 14.HOOLAHAN (11.Pilkington `75), 24.HOWSON, 17.E.BENNETT, 9.HOLT(c) (21.Wilbraham `81), 10.JACKSON (5.Morison `69). Unused: 3.Fox, 4.Ward, 5.Surman, 13.Steer.
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