Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday August 20 2007
Hearing the rain thud rhythmically against my window as my alarm sounded at the ungodly hour of five am, forming a striking harmony with the howling wind, my embryonic thoughts of the day were how this match would be a real test of Arsenal's resolve. A lot of the talk from our camp and sections of the media has surrounded our toughening up, Arsenal's balls had dropped, gone were the pre pubescent boys who had suffered at the hands of arch thug Shearer and his ilk and a new era had been ushered in. (Though I suspect rumours of Arsenal playing Rage Against The Machine's debut album and thumping skulls together in the dressing room pre match were wide of the mark). A horrific car crash on the M6 made for a slow journey North, in hindsight, it would be foolhardy to entirely dismiss the notion that the horribly obliterated car was a victim of one of Robbie Savage's, ahem, challenges.
The match kicked off and Lilly was slow off the mark, taking a leisurely fifteen seconds to completely needlessly kick Gael Clichy into touch with the ball long since departed. Referee Wiley smiled and remarked, 'not to worry old chap, have another go.' We all expected Blackburn to get in our faces early on, and so they did, pursuing the ball with admirable tenacity. Savage and Emerton waded in with some meaty challenges, not all of which were unfair. My problem comes when time and time again Rovers players sontinued their momentum into stricken players, intentionally kicking them once the ball had gone and the ref's back was turned. Honestly, at times it was like watching that awful Vinnie Jones movie Mean Machine. The Gunners' stood up to the intimidation, but did not seem at their fluent best. Rovers denied the Gunners' space in midfield, and the impressive figures of Nelsen and Samba mopped up anything that ventured towards van Persie and debutant Eduardo. It was an understandably quiet debut from Eduardo, but a huge positive was his desire to receive the ball and he seemed unpreturbed by the pitch war Blackburn were creating. Though I would suggest he needs to be a little more subtle at his attempts to back into defenders to create space.
Arsenal scored with pretty much their first decent break. Friedel failed to gather a routine shot, which Fabregas followed up with alacrity (yes, an Arsenal player following up in the box, we really have changed), his original effort was fumbled clear from the line by Warnock, but Robin van Persie scored his eighth goal against Rovers in three seasons. It was a scrappy goal befitting of a scrappy game, the kind of goal Arsenal have not scored enough of in the past. The Gunners' took control at this point and should have had a second, had Theo Walcott had demonstrated more composure, he might his cross might have found Robin van Persie unmarked with the goal gaping. Rovers did come close though, a Bentley set piece was headed onto the post by the giant Christophe Samba, a player who looks to be another inspired signing by Mark Hughes. Philippe Senderos headed narrowly over, but Rovers sought to disrupt Arsenal's rhythm with a series of niggly fouls and laughable hystrionics, 99% of which emanated from Robbie Savage. This utter twat is just football's answer to the wasp, nobody knows what it does or why it's there and to compensate for it's utter ineptitude, it's sole function seems to be to annoy everybody with petulant enthusiasm. Lilly is that rare creature, a hybrid of thug, some of his tacklling really leaves a lot to be desired, and ponce. Anytime somebody has the temerity to come close to him, he collapses holding his face, his blond locks flailing around him. For instance, he conned the gullible official into cautioning Mathieu Flamini (though on balance of his later indiscretions, he probably deserved to be booked in this game), bot leapt for a header, Flamini's knee barely brushing Savage's hip, only for Lilly to lie prone with his hands clutiching his face. This guy is a cancer on our league, and the fact that he has yet to be sent off in the Premiership is a shocking indictment on a league that is fast becoming a laughing stock around the globe.
The half time whistle sounded with, amazingly, the Rovers fans chanting '1-0 to the referee.' Despite the fact that they probably should have finished the half with nine men (tackling around the neck is not even permissable in rugby, yet it was a practise Rovers indulged on a multitude of occasions). I can only presume that Wiley used his telekinectic powers to momentarily turn the ball into a bar of soap as Friedel went to handle it. (As is decorum for all match officials, he later evened the score). Despite Gallas going off injured (predictably, he was evading a late challenge from behind), the Gunners' were standing up to the bully boys. Rovers came out with renewed vigour in the second half, pinning Arsenal back for much of the half, but without creating much). A Bentley cross was headed back across goal by Derbyshire onto the straggling body of Toure, the ball could easily have gone in off his frame but thankfully it did not. Heated exchanges became commonplace, with Savage at the pivot of the game's every unsavoury moment.
Firstly, his appalling dive to try and win a penalty, followed by his embarassingly insistent protest, putting one in mind of a child who had had his haribo wrestled away from him. Emerton squared up to Hleb for no apprent reason other than the fact that the Belarussian wanted to take a throw in. Mark Hughes became involved with van Persie, as the Dutchman outrageously tried to duck the flailing arm of Warnock, whose attempt to throw the ball at van Persie's face was immature at best. The referee's lose grip on the game was confirmed when the usually placid Pedersen won a challenge on Fabregas, only to quite deliberately stamp on Fabregas's head with the ball again an innocent bystander. Not only did the referee not punish the offence, he then failed to allow Fabregas treatment, the most basic violation of health and safety legislation since the Manson family decided to attend a house party in the sixties. It's a basic indiscretion that should see Wiley clutching a P45 this morning. Has Petr Cech's misfortune taught us nothing?
van Persie was rightly livid with the official's lunacy, but regrettably expressed it with a late challenge on Warnock. Predictably, Savage was first on the scene brandishing an imaginary card in an attempt to get van Persie sent off. He also appeared to wade in with an arm windmilling towards van Persie as he lay on the ground. Fabregas did not get mad, he got even with Gamst, winning possession with a cruching, but fair tackle. The Gunners' were being pinned back, but looked reasonably comfortable at the back, until David Dunn played a one two with Roque Santa Cruz, launching a tame left foot shot at Lehmann, which the German somehow fumbled into his own net. Another costly howler from the German that could see him pay with his place, I'll discuss this matter in greater depth in an article I will post tonight. Matt Debyshire chose to celebrate by screaming in Lehmann's face, another in a catalogue of embarassing incidents for Blackburn.
Arsenal redoubled and nearly grabbed a late winner. Once again, Bendtner made a difference upon his arrival, latching onto Fabregas's through ball and rounding Friedel, but from a tight angle, he tried to play in van Persie, the ballwas intercepted and broke loose to Hleb, a first time shot would have given Arsenal three points, but he foolishly took a touch beofre laying off to Denilson, his shot was cleared off the line by Nelsen. Nelsen was then sent off for a second bookable offence, hauling down van Persie with the Arsenal striker clean through on goal. Bendtner was to hook a last gasp shot wide from the edge of the 18yard box, and Blackburn got their point. On balance, a point was not entirely unfair, neither side created much, although the Gunners' had more clear cut opportunities than their hosts. Unfortunately, a basic goalkeeping error cost us a hallmark victory, another statement that Arsenal were not their to be bullied anymore. Even more regrettable were Blackburn's tactics. I am aware of how Wenger uses the media on occasion, but this time his key adjective, 'violence' is bang on the money. The ball appeared to be an inconsequence to the likes of Savage, Emerton and Gamst, whilst Bentley and Savage's impressive penchant for verbals make a potentially exciting and admirable Blackburn isde, hard to appreciate. It's sad that our league allows this sort of play with dismissive asides such as, 'it's a man's game.' Stamping on someone's head as they lay on the ground is not the action of 'a man', holding one's face when feeling connection with the hip is not the action of 'a man.' They are the actions of cowards, and I think I might have a good case to sue Blackburn under the trade descriptions act, I paid them £31 to watch a football match. It scarsely resembled one.LD.
Date:Monday August 20 2007
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