As far as starts to difficult weeks go, that turned out to be half-decent, yeah? After eons of bumbling around in the wilderness every time our rivals slipped up, Arsenal finally took advantage of dropped points around them yesterday by squeezing past Sunderland with very little toothpaste in the tube to spare. Liverpool lost and returned to Klanfield with white sheets between legs, Chelsea barely mustered two whimpers against an ascending Everton, and the roulette for Champions League places is picking up pace.
Wenger was always going to put out a strong team here; I suspect the FA Cup game at the end of the week will bear the brunt of rotation, and understandably so. The front three of van Persie, Walcott and Chamberlain was unchanged, having been involved in six of the seven goals scored against hapless Blackburn. Rosicky starting over Ramsey was both a hat-tip to the Czech dynamo’s form of late, and the realization that Ramsey was badly in need of a breather. At the back, Bacary the Brave returned, and Gibbs was deemed fit enough to be on the bench but not to start as Vermaelen was persisted with at left-back. Maybe the manager thought that our tinderbox Englishman would spontaneously break all leg bones in his body because of…
Which was, quite frankly, atrocious. I accept that stadiums have had problems with the heavy snowing, but it seemed like a battalion of oxen had enjoyed a zestful night-out on the Sunderland green before D-lines had hastily been drawn to prep the ground for a football match. The ball wobbled and jumped, passes and crosses were accompanied with flying lumps of grass as both teams tried to negotiate ninety minutes on a patch of earth more suitable to tending potatoes.
This made the first half a relatively turgid affair, with Sunderland’s propensity to keep all players behind the ball and Arsenal’s unwillingness to increase the pace of the game not helping. Trying to recall moments worth remembering is akin to finding two Adam Sandler movies that are different. A Frazier Campbell snapshot after pandemonium at the edge of the Arsenal box, Walcott’s optimistic cross-shot from the right, Mertesacker tripping over one of the many plateaus on the pitch and inadvertently handling the ball, and a referee that actually got all the big calls right are all the highlights I can muster; and Match of the Day could do little better.
The Second Half
And our attack had more verve, but the Sunderland forays had more end-product. Arsenal had the lion’s share of possession in both halves, but the opening minutes of the second forty-five had a quicker exchange of passes, more movement, and a minute easing of the handbrake overall. But hearts went all a-flutter in the common room whenever Sunderland broke in counter-attack, well aware in Arsenal’s uncanny ability to concede when on top.
A cheap free-kick on the edge of the box squirmed under the wall and fell for O’Shea who thankfully blasted over from close range. An extended loop of SunderlandTakeCorner-ArsenalClearCorner later, Gardner lashed one in ferociously from twenty yards which was kept out by a scrambling Szczesny save. One sensed that the match would either lumber to an unexciting close, or a spark would light up a spate of twenty-minute fireworks.
Spark it was. Mertesacker had the ball after a Sunderland counter looked to have been smothered, when his ankle went and he plummeted like a big German skyscraper in very evident pain. While fair-play dictates that Sunderland should have kicked the ball out of play, I think it’s unrealistic to expect McLean to stop when he had only Szczesny and one defender to beat. I would have wanted an Arsenal player to do the same, so yeah. The lanky wingman darted forward and swept a raking shot past the keeper into the far corner. The game was alive.
Arsene’s substitutions only aided to this shot-in-the-heart. Ramsey came on for the ailing Mertesacker as Song dropped into defence; Arsenal now had two ball-playing centre backs in addition to three pass-picking midfielders. Henry came on for Chamberlain on a day which both English wingers were mediocre. Arsenal’s ball-pinging resumed.
Arteta took stock of his options at the edge of the box, slipped it into RvP, it came back out to him beseeching to be shot and he obliged. The obligation was noble in essence but lacking in technique however, the miscue taking a deflection and falling to Ramsey. His attempt was much better.
Off both posts and in, we had crossed the first hurdle and the consensus in the common-room was that a draw would be received with grace and dignity. Arsene brought on Arshavin for the poor Walcott with five minutes left to play, and the Russian was in a very cross-y mood from the off, flinging accurate balls into the box, one of which resulted in a van Persie header straight at Mingolet.
Henry- Goalscorer, Leader, Scriptwriter
The man can write a football script, you have to hand it to him. He hardly saw the ball after coming on, all attempted long passes and through balls in his direction being easily cut out. But then Arsenal’s darling and Arsenal’s not-so-darling combined in a moment of combined quality, as the common room lost all sense of decorum and erupted.
Arshavin dug into the earthy Sunderland surface and pulled off his best cross yet, and Henry daintily opened his foot at the last second to steer the ball past Mignolet and send Arsenal fourth. His last contribution in the Premier League, another goal to add to the play-and-weep collection, a very happy end to the day and a very happy start to the week.
I won’t be as gung-ho as to say ‘Bring on Milan!’, but yeah, bring them on without the exclamation marks please. One game at a time, we shall see.
This post also appeared on BigFourZa------------
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