It Wouldn't Be Arsenal.......
THAT is why I stopped going to pre season friendlies some years ago, after three months of a sans football existence, Arsenal packed an entire campaign's worth of tension, frustration and ecstatic delight into the opening ninety minutes of the season. In fact, at times one felt that it might have been entirely more appropriate to watch Arsenal's 2006/07 Review DVD. And therein lies cause for concern........
With my arms weary from a Saturday afternoon fishing and a Saturday evening indulging in some hardcore drunken wii boxing, we made our way to an Ashburton Grove enveloped in mid summer sunshine. Arriving around twenty minutes before kick off (about twenty minutes earlier than I usually arrive), I had the rare opportunity of watching the players warm up. I was heartened to see William Gallas rallying the troops, pumping his fists with ernest and gathering the players together. He would repeat the trick to much wider acclaim around two hours later. Acquaintances were renewed with those that sit around me before our campaign kicked off to a mighty roar. Fifty seconds later, that roar was displaced with a barely audible groan. Clichy's lightening pace saw him outrun Hameur Bouazza, stroking the ball back to Lehmann. With his first touch of the season, Mad Jens had a 'crazy legs' moment, scuffing his all too nonchalant pass straight to David Healy, who had the simple task of prodding into the naked net.
Arsenal 1-0 down at home, we had seen this all before. True to form, the staple pattern of last season's indiscretion would reveal itself as we found a goalkeeper in fine form. Arsenal looked physically inferior to Fulham in the opening half, the likes of Fabregas, van Persie, Hleb and the shockingly idle Eboue looked off the pace. Whilst Fulham snapped into tackles and buzzed with quiet industry (as one would expect), Arsenal looked ponderous and unwilling to take charge. Players repeatedly refused to meet the ball, waiting instead for a Fulham player to snatch it from their toes. Arsenal did threaten perodically, Eboue and Sagna combined with a neat one two on the right, before Hleb met Eboue's precise cross with a firm shot that was blocked by Zat Knight. It was again the right hand side that would see Arsenal fashion another opportunity, this time it was Sagna's cross which was met firmly by Rosicky, but with Warner rocking back on his heels in resignation, the ball arrowed past the post.
Phil Dowd was to deny Arsenal a stonewall penalty, when Alex Hleb jinked past Chris Baird, only to be upended in the box. The challenge occured centimetres from the byline, yet Baird's tackle did not see the ball drift out for a corner. So if he didn't get the ball that would make it a foul wouldn't it Mr. Dowd? Arsenal continued to provide only sporadic moments of inspiration amidst a disconsolate lull, but Alex Hleb should have levelled the scores when van Persie presented him with the ball in a one on one situation, but the inspired Warner was down quickly to make a sprawling save, van Persie's follow up was easily beaten away. A low Rosicky shot tested Warner further, before Hameur Bouazza could only shoot straight at Jens Lehmann in a good position, as Arsenal's backline looked very porous. Arsenal went off to a chorus of boos. It looks like supporter ignorance is something we are going to have to get used to at our corporately sponsored stadium. For instance, the cheers when it was announced Antti Niemi had been injured in the pre match warm up were embarassing and entirely unsavoury. Arsenal were always the club that used to applaud opposing goalkeepers onto the pitch, a source of pride for those of us who always regarded Arsenal as the gentlemenly institution club. Alas, it appears the morons have taken over.
The Gunners' redoubled their efforts in the second half, with Gallas, and in particular the outstanding Kolo Toure, leading from the back, snapping into the tackles and driving the team on. Ironically, despite performing much better in the second period, Arsenal would not create as many opportunities as a lacklusture first half. But Arsenal still appeared to lack some bite and impetus. In fact, Fulham threatened on the break several times, using the pace of their wingers to cause a nervous Arsenal backline some moments of disquiet. I admire Mathieu Flamini's work rate, but I simply don't believe him to be good enough for Arsenal. The absence of Abou Diaby puzzled me, as I felt his ability to drive the team on would have served us better. I simply cannot remember a time when Flamini emerged from a midfield tussle with the ball. Fulham's cast of supporting attackers, Davies, Bouazza, Dempsey, were left unchecked time and again.
Early in the second half, some fine interplay between Rosicky and Fabregas saw the Czech hitman go through on goal, but Warner was once again on hand to block Rosicky's effort. Fulham crowded the penalty area to excellent effect, nullifying our ability to craft chances around the box, something we'd managed to do several times in the first half. Though Fulham still held a high defensive line which Robin van Persie would have exploited with impunity were it not for an overly pedantic linesman. Wenger threw on Theo Walcott with your esteemed writer crying out for Niklas Bendtner, the young Dane would appear for the last twenty minutes and make the difference. Fulham's defence began to visibly tire, with several cases of cramp apparent in their ranks. Kolo Toure, presumably fed up with Arsenal's chin stroking approach play, took it upon himself to launch attacks with his enthused runs. Bendtner added a physical presence in the box which had been previously missing. Bendtner created panic in the area as he took down a Fabregas cross, but his poise deserted him in front of goal and the ball escaped amidst a sea of Fulham legs. It was to be another one of Toure's forrays forward which would bear fruit. He danced past three Fulham players with lightning speed, before Carlos Bocanegra illegally burgled him of his momentum in the area. Robin van Persie wrapped home the penalty so emphatically, I'm still not entirely convinced the crossbar didn't rise two inches unwilling to receive the stinging kiss of the Dutchman's connection.
A small melee ensued following the penalty with Warner refusing to release the ball, but Willy seemed to be on hand to snarl everybody into submission. The Gunners' scented blood, with the morale removed from the Cottager's ailing limbs. Bendtner continued to provide a focal point, taking down Sagna's cross, before turning a shot straight into Tony Warner's body with Theo Walcott probably better placed. Fulham continued to play with fire by maintaining a high line and they were duly punished as the game entered stoppage time. Cesc Fabregas flighted a delightful ball into Alex Hleb, who demonstrated eery composure, to collect the ball, evade the imposing figure of Zat Knight and lash home a low shot. Pandemonium broke out as all around pumped their fists in a mixture of delight and relief. The advertising hoarding below my seat received thunderous acclaim via my severley sunburnt right arm, and the time consuming Tony Warner had his ears warmed by the taunts of Flamini and Fabregas. The final whistle sounded as new skipper Gallas insisted on an all encompassing huddle, a statement of intent as it were. It was an important comeback, not just in terms of points, but psychologically, it was crucial to get the season off to a morale boosting start. However, I still cannot help but feel that last season's indiscretions, profligacy, the reactive rather than proactive nature of our play, were still largely present. I hope that this can be chalked to early season rust, several players appeared to be half a yard below their pace. I cannot help but feel Abou Diaby has a big part to play in this side in shifting the balance slightly to make us more aggressive. MAN OF THE MATCH: Kolo TOURE- There really is no other candidate.LD.