Arsenal 1 Queens Park Rangers 0
I refer you to my preview of the QPR game when I foretold of a scrappy 1-0 win for Arsenal. (Though my powers of clairvoyance did not stretch to the correct goalscorer, alas). Off the back of a couple of harrowing (and deserved) defeats, performances are rarely of a champagne vintage. Remember Swansea last year? Of course you don`t, but amidst the trauma of Old Trafford we snuck a 1-0 home win via our most ludicrously serendipitous goal of the season. I expected much the same against QPR and it`s largely what we got. We improved on Schalke and Norwich, but that is to damn with faint praise.
At least on this occasion we can point to a busy opposing goalkeeper and conclude that this was a deserved victory. If only just about. The cockles of the crowd were warmed by starts for Bacary Sagna and a first start in 17 months for Jack Wilshere, as the first visit of the whipping winter wind made itself known in the capital. The first half was not really friendly to makers of highlight reels in truth. Wilshere did give us some of his inveterate spark, much missed in the last two matches. The simultaneous loss of our most direct players- Walcott, Chamberlain, Rosicky and Diaby- has made us look pedestrian against well drilled opponents. Wilshere completed all 33 of his passes in the first half, with 21 of those coming in the final third.
Arsenal eked out some half chances in the first half. Cazorla`s reverse pass found Santos, his low cross was deflected towards his own goal by Bosingwa, Cesar smuggled the ball away with his feet at the second attempt. Wilshere was spreading the play and his pass found Sagna on the right. Ramsey snuck into a corridor of space between Mbia and Traore, Sagna responded with a curling cross which Ramsey headed onto the top of the cross bar. Giroud then tested Cesar with a fulminating strike from the corner of the box which the Brazilian was equal to. Signs of the disjointedness of the team were apparent. Both Podolski and Santos played down the east side of the stadium where I sit and argued constantly during the first half about whom they should be picking up.
Santos is the bête noir of Arsenal fans at the moment, so he gets the blame from most. But I counted three times that Podolski pointed for Santos to mark Taarabt on the inside, leaving Podolski to take Wright Phillips on the outside, before ignoring his own instruction and running exactly where he had told Santos to go. It`s clear that understandings are still being forged within the team. Both appeared to have spoken and devised a more cogent strategy in the second half. But in truth, this was barely a notch above the intrepid fare we had been treated to over the previous seven days.
The second half saw Arsenal liven up significantly and they managed to generate some urgency. Mertesacker`s flicked header from Arteta`s free kick called Cesar into action again in the 50th minute. Arsenal introduced Walcott for a visibly tiring Wilshere, whose opening baby steps back into action were positive. But Walcott`s introduction gave us some of the directness we had been missing. He attempted runs on the shoulder of the full back, tried curling crosses for Giroud. He didn`t do it as well as he is capable of, nor did he do it as badly as we know he is capable of. But it gave QPR something different to think about in their area.
Indeed it was a Walcott cross that fashioned a gilt edged chance for Cazorla. Giroud attacked the cross and, here`s the key thing with Giroud, even if he doesn`t win the header outright, he prevents an emphatic clearance. Mbia could only drop the ball to Cazorla on the penalty spot. The wee Spaniard does seem to have a penchant for lifting his shots too high and this time he sent it into orbit. It was a horrible miss just as Arsenal were toiling. They nearly got lucky when Cazorla`s corner caused panic in the area and Mbia`s attempted clearance hit Bosingwa and flew back towards the Hoops` goal, only for Cesar to make a gravity defying reflex stop.
Arsenal`s cause was helped greatly by the stupidity of the hitherto impressive Mbia. Cazorla`s corner kick drifted out towards the opposite corner flag via a QPR head, Vermaelen and Mbia gave chase. The linesman gave a foul against Vermaelen for a vociferous shoulder charge, but as an act of petty retribution, Mbia kicked out at Vermaelen`s shins and earned himself a quite idiotic red card. Especially as QPR had made their last substitution seconds earlier. It was also one of the few things the referee got right. Anthony Taylor was a quite appalling official. He looked like a kid on work experience with his inconsistent calls and his dizzying trouble with the concept of what ten yards looks like.
With seven minutes to go, fingernails were being gnawed but the Gunners got their slice of fortune. Arshavin made some space for himself from the left and stood up a dawdling cross for Giroud. He attacked with fervour but saw his goalbound header saved by Cesar. Ramsey had the presence of mind to keep the ball alive by toe ending it back into the area. Arteta headed the bouncing ball onto the crossbar, but it fell nicely for him to poke the rebound in from less than a yard. Replays showed Arteta was clearly offside when Ramsey played the ball back into the danger area. At the expense of suspending my Corinthian spirit, you`ll not see me shed any tears for Mark Hughes.
The preceding eight minutes provided more goalmouth incident that the first 82 minutes combined. Ramsey`s vicious first time shot from 20 yards was beaten out well by Cesar. Ramsey found Cazorla in the area as QPR had to commit bodies forward, but Cesar was equal to his curling shot on 88 minutes. But jitters visibly took hold of Arsenal as they became desperate to hold onto the points. Bosingwa`s short free kick to Taarabt on the halfway line caught Arsenal napping, and the Moroccan had all the time in the world to loft a pass over Vermaelen`s head into the path of Granero, but he slid his shot wide. The substitute Jamie Mackie did his best Moses impression, parting Arsenal`s defence as he slalomed between Arteta, Santos and then rounded Vermaelen. He found himself staring into the whites of Mannone`s eyes, but the Italian blocked the close range shot with his knees.
More Arsenal hearts were set a flutter in injury time when Anthony Taylor gave an unbelievable free kick decision against Sagna which QPR didn`t even claim for. The award was on the corner of Arsenal`s box and Granero tried to fool Mannone with a near post shot, but Vito pushed it wide. In the end, the final whistle was greeted with relief more than ecstasy. It`s the sort of game where you get the result, go home and forget the game ever existed come May. We can reasonably point to the stats and say that visiting keeper Julio Cesar was man of the match. That`s a clear improvement on the two shots on target we had produced in the prior 180 minutes. Though it`s true goalscoring responsibility seems to be spreading in the team, I still worry that we aren`t as threatening to teams as we could be. After today`s games we`re officially the stingiest defence in the division. I suppose it`s a matter of getting the balance right. LD.
ARSENAL: 24.MANNONE, 3.SAGNA, 4.MERTESACKER, 5.VERMAELEN (c), 11.A.SANTOS, 8.ARTETA, 10.WILSHERE (14.Walcott `68), 19.S.CAZORLA, 16.RAMSEY, 9.PODOLSKI (27.Gervinho `71, Arshavin `82), 12.GIROUD. Unused: 6.Koscielny, 22.Coquelin, 25.Jenkinson, 38.Martinez.
QPR: 33.JULIO CESAR, 19.BOSINGWA, 17.NELSEN (c), 40.MBIA, 3.TRAORE (15.Onuoha `73), 2.DIAKITE, 16.GRANERO, 22.HOILETT, 11.WRIGHT PHILLIPS (12.Mackie `79), 10.TAARABT, 25.ZAMORA (9.Cisse `73). Unused: 1.Green, 5.Ferdinand, 14.Faurlin, 23.Ephraim.