Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday August 16 2007
I'm now going to attempt something I have never done before for this site. I am going to produce a match report having watched a match on television. As I have explained earlier, due to work commitments I was unable to attend this game, and watching Arsenal on television is a very weird sensation and one that I am not at all used to. My cats are a lot less accomodating towards my verbose language than thousands of football fans! Plus, the quite horrendous editor meant I missed half of the on pitch action, instead being forced to watch the light reflect of the Sparta coach's head (whop was a dead ringer for Al Murray). I will be glad to get back on the road again this Sunday.
I felt the match followed a fairly predictable pattern and anyone expecting us to roll over our hosts from the first whistle was always going to be unsatisfied. Sparta came out in, ahem, typically robust fashion. Tomas Repka waited all of ninety seconds to rake his studs maliciously down van Persie's achilles. The referee also set his pattern early on, by allowing this act of violence to go unpunished, while pedantically pulling up anyone who had the temerity to actually win the ball. Prague looked to break up play, much in the same fashion Zagreb did at this stage last season. However, some of Praha's tackling left a lot to be desired. I always felt Praha would not be able to execute their game plan beyond the hour mark so long as Arsenal did not a) give the hosts something to hold onto and b) did not lose their temper. Tensions frayed slightly when the usually placid Alex Hleb took exception to some comments from that thug Repka. But it was very pleasing to see the likes of Fabregas stand up to the intimidation without over stepping the mark. Indeed, like a bully who has just been swatted by the class geek, Repka took exception to Fabregas' resolution, lamenting the Spaniard as he comically went off injured. (An injury whose inception seems to have been innocuous, as he collapsed in pain under no pressure). It was also pleasing that van Persie kept his head, I feared that he wouldn't. Had Repka have stayed on, I fear the Dutchman might have seen red.
Arsenal stood up to the intimidation, but did not look defensively comfortable in the opening stages. The back four as a whole played well, particularly Gallas who relished his role as leader, while Sagna gives you the impression that Lauren never really left. But the absence of Gilberto was felt keenly as Flamini repeatedly failed to pick up Praha's wide players, Rezek and Kulic. On the rare occasions Flamini was in position, he rarely chanced a tackle. On 12 minutes this lapse was very nearly punished when a Kulic cross evaded the sleeping Clichy, but Lehmann beat Rezek's close range effort onto the post. Typically, the move was bookended by a sickening knee high tackle on Rosicky by Kulic which really ought to have been a red card. I resent this discourse that a tackle must be two footed to be a red card, malice is malice and damage can be done with the one foot. If a lone gunmen riddles his victim with one bullet to the head, is this not murder?
van Persie looked very isolated upfront, with Hleb and Fabregas failing to get close to him in support. But this did not greatly trouble me, I always felt it was sensible to keep things tight until Prague inevitably tired. A Fabregas volley from van Persie's chest down was our solitary opportunity of the half. The referee saw fit to book Fabregas and Flamini for having the temerity to win the ball, whilst Pargue's legion of thugs continued their hatchet jobs unabated. van Persie was comically booked for, errr, well, I don't know in truth. Perhaps that overly gelled quiff was bothering the official. Ludicrously, he gesticulated towards four other areas of the pitch where van Persie had supposedly committed offences. At that point, Arsenal had committed five fouls in the game, two of which were deemed cautionable, making van Persie a kind of Jesus Christ figure. Being punished for the sins of mankind (though there are rumours that Robin was implicated in the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand).
The Gunners' burst into life close on the hour, with Prague fresh out of ammo and lacking ideas. Rosicky played in van Persie, who produced a wonderful piruohette and shot in the box which was beaten out by Postulka, Brezinsky shanked his clearance agonisingly close to his own net. van Persie again danced down the left, lifted in a neat cross which Pospech almost waywardly headed into his own goal. Arsenal smelled blood and inevitably drew claret on 71 minutes. Clichy intercepted an Abraham pass in midfield, Kulic was entirely too tired to track down the marauding full back. The Hurricane twisted past two defenders before releasing Cesc Fabregas, the diminutive Spaniard was left the simple task of consummately slotting past Postulka. The ineffective Rosicky made way for Song, which invited Sparta onto us. Kadlec's long free kick found the enormous target of Dosek, but Lehmann smartly beat out his header. From the resulting corner, a scramble ensued, Song blocked Slepicka's attempt, but the ball broke loose to Dosek with the goal at his mercy. Exactly ten minutes after making the difference in one box, Cesc Fabregas was to take an equally important touch in the other, taking the ball off Dosek's toes with amazing precision.
It was Sparta's turn to smell blood, but the Gunners' kept their guard up before suckerpunching the hosts with a goal reminiscent of the invincibles. Lehmann collected a Sparta set piece and immediately bowled it out to Sagna who made haste down the left hand side, running into the oceans of space. An intelligent ball put Alex Hleb in, and the Belarussian scuffed home his second goal in two games to surely clinch the tie in injury time. Ironic when you consider the amount of wonderfully hit strikes last season that troubled crossbars, goalkeepers' palms and advertising hoardings the continent over, that a horrible misuce would prove to be the perfect finish to the perfect evening. Arsenal were by no means at their fluent best, but the big question mark over us for two seasons is whether we can grind it out when our brilliant best deserts us. The last two games has suggested that we are slowly acquiring this skill. A phrase I keep coming back to with reference to Arsenal concerns 'controlling the key moments of the game.' This is a nack Chelsea have patented of late, rarely do their performances look anything other than strictly work-a-day, but they get results. I am not for one minute considering we adopt their style, but if one is to take the Carling Cup Final as an example, our youngsters ran them all over Cardiff in a purist sense. But Chelsea did the right things at the right times and won the game.
This is what Arsenal did last night, the fact encapsulated by the performance of Cesc Fabregas. A long way from his gracious pomp, the young Spaniard ostensibly made three contributions all night. He let Prague know we were not their to be bullied. The sounds of boos from the home crowd every time he touched the ball put me in mind of Vieira's glorious prime. He scored the goal and then he almost certainly prevented a goal. The other 87 minutes saw the game largely pass him by, but he mastered the moments that mattered. Gallas also looks to be a fine leader of this team, he is making good on his promise in the summer to take more responsibility at the back (what do you mean you didn't read about that?), guiding his troops through the match with calm assurance and proactive interceptions. Lehmann did not let Sunday's discrepancy bother him with an assured display, and Sagna in his early performances looks every inch Arsenal material. (Then again, so did Cygan and Stepanovs in their early games so let us not go overboard). It's an encouraging performance, and an encouraging result. And I've already got one eye on easyjet for the grioup stage draw.LD.
Date:Thursday August 16 2007
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