North London Diaby
As the coach pulled out of Aston and onto a static motorway, a friend of mine commented that we had just witnessed 'a bit of a George Graham win.' It was certainly a throw back to the 1-0 to the Arsenal days, our performance was not a balletic or gracile masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but we showed the requisite grit to get the points. From now until May, we will all be peering into something of a crystal ball and using the remainder of this season as a prophetic mirage for the next campaign. A squad decimated by injuries and ravaged by low morale went away from home on a Wednesday night and ground out a result. That has to be an encouraging sign, everybody knows we are capable of the Wengerball stuff, but sometimes you need to just dig your heels in and get the result. One thing is for sure, Wenger's crystal ball is high resolution technicolour, as our midfield consisted of three players twenty and under. However, our profligacy showed no sign of abating, this simply must be addressed. I genuinely feel our lacklusture end product is the major aspect holding us back from greatness again.
Villa began the match brightly, making use of the little large strike duo. Carew's physical prowess combined with Young's electric pace threatened in the opening stages. But Arsenal's young midfield were inspired, Denilson's tackling was sharp and smart, Fabregas cajouled and looked to create openings, while Diaby was awesome, his elongated limbs making mincemeat of Bardsley and Agbonlohor. Ten minutes into the game, with Arsenal not looking particularly threatening, we fluked a goal. Another marauding Diaby run set up Baptista, who momentarily mistook himself for Frank Lumplard, misfiring a long shot only to see Abou Diaby unwittingly deflect it into the net with Sorensen stranded. A bemused North Stand vibrated with glee and not a little bemusment. Having scored the goal and manned the game up to that point, a few of us tried to get everyone singing Diaby's name with absolutely no success. Seconds later, another entirely boring and witless rendition of 'One Man Went to Bed with Ashley' reverberated around our end with enthusiasm. I am sure Abou was thrilled to have his performance greeted with an unfunny gay joke about his ex team mate. Bravo Gooners.
Arsenal temporarily looked to have found their swagger, as Ljungberg's brilliantly weighted slide rule pass was met by the lively Aliadiere, but he shot tamely at Sorensen with the goal at his mercy. Minutes later, he was to repeat the crime. Fabregas's cutting through pass saw Jeremie in an excellent position, his run was intelligent and well timed, but with the last miss clearly playing on his mind he dithered and Mellberg snapped in with a well timed challenge. The game sprung into life as Villa shook themselves from their entrapy as Carew began to wreak havoc. Villa launched a counter attack with Young breezing past Djourou, only for Agbonlohor to fire straight at Lehmann, Gilberto scrambled the rebound away with Carew lurking. Controversy ensued shortly after, as Djourou appeared to haul down Carew with the goal at the Norwegian's mercy. In all honesty, I have not seen the incident back yet, but Carew certainly exaggerated his fall as soon as he entered the penalty area. It looked to be a sending off to me, but I cannot recall how much cover Djourou had. In the dying embers of the half, Aliadiere was guilty of his worst miss yet, Ljungberg's excellent flighted cross saw Ali unmarked at the back post, but he headed the ball into the ground and over a grateful Holte End crossbar.
The second half saw Villa roar out of the traps and bring a multitude of pressure on the Arsenal goal. For the first fifteen minutes of the half, Arsenal did not once enjoy sustained possession as Villa relentlessly pumped the ball into our box. Bardsley and Bouma supplemented the Villa attacks more, tossing a plethora of heart stopping crosses into the box. But Gallas really showed his mettle, leading two inexperienced full backs and a central midfielder playing out of position. Diaby, Denilson and Fabregas's collective influence on the game waned and, ironically enough. we missed the presence of Gilberto sitting in front of the back four to tidy up the second balls. John Carew hit a vicious volley which swerved just wide. Villa's best opportunity arrived when a Barry corner was headed towards his own goal by Abou Diaby, only for the excellent Freddie Ljungberg to smash off the line. I have given Freddie a fair bit of stick lately, but, along with Gallas, he was our star performer last night. He was by no means a picture of spectacular elegance, but he relished the role of seasoned pro in a midfield with three babies, dug in and was a real inspiration for what was a gutsy second half resistance.
Wenger, sensing Diaby's tiring limbs and our unusual inability to retain the ball, brought on Tomas Rosicky and he made an instant impression. His control in tight spaces and his awesome footballing brain enabled Arsenal to alleviate the pressure. Another Arsenal substitution was to spark some controversy. Julio Baptista was withdrawn for Mathieu Flamini. Baptista had a poor game, his touch was loose and his distribution sloppy. In fairness, he was feeding on scraps, but he did not seem to be taking up the dangerous positions that he had done in previous matches. Baptista stood on the touchline and appeared to berate Wenger, who furiously censured him and implored jim to sit down. I am told Wenger has since revealed Baptista has a back injury, the Beast certainly seemed to beg to differ. Ljungberg moved upfront and looked even livelier, linking up with Rosicky. Arsenal could have nicked a second in injury time when Fabregas ran onto Denilson's through pass, skipped past Sorensen, but just could not find the onrushing Flamini in the centre. It would have been very harsh on Villa, who probably deserved a point as it was. Aliadiere went off following an ugly kick by Gary Cahill- who had put in a sterling performance.
The Gunners held on and the reaction of our man of the match William Gallas looked to be a real statement. He implored his troops over to the Arsenal end, leading them on a lap of honour around the North Stand, pumping his fists all the way, his shirt and wristband discarded into the crowd for sweaty souvenir fanatics. It did not look to be the reaction of a man who has had trouble motivating himself. My guess is that the quotes attributed to him in the week were your usual tabloid cocktail of lies, inventions and journalistic license. It was the last of nine, midweek away matches North of London for us this season and I have to say, thank the lord Arsene for that! The powers that be decided to repaint the road markings on the M1 on the night of a sold our Premiership match. WHO ARE THESE MORONS??? The result was that it took a total of two hours just to get out of Birmingham, and with the last train well and truly missed, my couple of hours kip went up into smoke as I gave my ninth sleepless night in service of the Arsenal this season. Hopefully next season's Carling Cup run will encessitate a few more (though a home draw wouldn't go amiss!) Ah, to sleep, perchance to dream. LD.