The most important win we’ve ever had at the Emirates
The title of this article are the very words I texted to my Gooner pals after the last-gasp victory over Fulham. And the more I think about it, the more they ring true to me – I simply cannot overstate how vital that victory was, especially the manor in which it was achieved given the shocking start we made.
First things first, the lineup. Le Boss opted for the 4-4-1-1 which had served us so well in pre-season, although this may have been largely borne by the late failure of a fitness test by Eduardo. The only surprise in my eyes was the inclusion of the Flamster ahead of both Diaby and Denilson – does anyone know the inside story behind that? Are either of them injured? There was late drama for Fulham as Annti Niemi picked up a wrist injury in the warm-ups and so Antony Warner took his place between the sticks.
We started terribly, to put it bluntly. A ball over the top of our defence (Healy looked suspiciously offside) was mopped up simply by Gael as he layed it back to Mad Jens. However, instead of opening his body and passing it to Sagna – which is what any sane keeper would do – our one decided to play it back in the direction of Gael and he duly slipped, giving the incoming Healy the standard Emirates gift of a goal. 1-0 to the visiting team with their goal coming from their first attack. Déjà vu or what?
Having just settled down to watch the game on the Net (after having trouble finding the audio commentary to match the video), it was surreal. Kind of like being in a dreamland, but one where you know exactly what’s gonna happen. And then it dawned on me that the crazy Kraut had ripped up any gameplan we had going into the match. I was livid as I had been looking forward to the players not having to carry on from last season’s habit of conceding first and then having to scratch and claw their way back into the game, but Jens’ mistake had put a real spanner in the works. So much for a new beginning, it was more like ‘2006/07 – The Encore Presentation’.
The one positive is that we had a full 89 minutes to reverse the situation. And we went about the task well, Alex Hleb dropping deep to good effect and Eboue linking well with Sagna. The first half-chance came when Tommy Rosicky dragged a left-foot shot harmlessly wide. Rosicky and Hleb combined and interchanged often, as evidenced by Hleb picking the ball up wide on the left before tricking Baird on the outside and going down. Penalty? Not according to the ref, nor the blinkered Lawrie Sanchez whose post-match ‘simulation’ comments certainly haven’t endeared him to this Gooner. Most of our good play came down the right. First Eboue slipped in Sagna who crossed low into the box. Robin failed to control the ball but it fell to Rosicky who shot narrowly wide on the half-volley. Then some intricate and well-angled passing and movement saw Eboue get in behind the Fulham defence, this time his cross was met by Hleb but Zat Knight’s foot diverted the goalbound shot over the bar, although to be fair to Warner he seemed to have it covered.
It wasn’t all Arsenal though, as former Spud Simon Davies nicked the ball off Cesc on the edge of our box and shot straight at the nervous Jens, who parried the ball and looked awfully sheepish throughout game. Almost immediately Kolo blocked well from another Healy effort as we looked decidedly dodgy at the back. We suffered from a bit of a lull until Rosicky, looking more comfortable out on the left than I’ve ever seen him, cut in from his wing and shot low to Warner’s near post. It was tipped around the post and the resulting corner was wasted, just like the rest of the umpteen corners we had throughout the afternoon. Fulham had their own penalty shout as Cesc innocuously clipped Stephen Davis as he ran to meet a cross, but the referee waved the shouts away much to the chagrin of Dirty Sanchez in their dugout. Then Robin was sent clear as Fulham persisted with their high line, beating the offside trap before squaring neatly to the onrushing Hleb. He shot low and hard, but unfortunately Warner saved with his legs. A quick note about our finishing, can anyone remember the last time we scored with a dink over/past the keeper???
Rosicky had yet another effort saved at the near post, before Hleb threaded the ball through to Cesc on the stroke of half-time. The Fulham defence was left for dead as the young Spaniard bore down on goal with Robin to his right screaming for a square ball. I was certain we’d score, but somehow Warner smothered our chance. Whether or not Cesc tried to poke the ball round the keeper or poke it square for Robin, either way Warner intercepted to preserve his side’s one-goal lead at half-time. What is it about Arsenal making decent keepers look like world-beaters? Rob Green got the royal treatment last season, Brad Friedel has had the honour more than once, as has Maik Taylor. Frustrating to say the least.
We nearly equalised in the second-half almost as early as Fulham had taken the lead in the first, as the increasingly effective Tommy Rosicky was again denied by Warner at the near-post after he scampered on to a ball over the top in a manner very reminiscent of Marc Overmars. Down the other end Jens was called back into action as he once again parried a shot coming straight at him, this time from Davis. These days we attack so much (or rather, we are forced to attack so much) that we’re always susceptible at the back, especially in terms of concentration. And as poor as we are at executing set-pieces, we are as bad at defending them. A Fulham corner saw Brian McBride completely free at the back post and we were lucky that he made a hash of controlling the ball, only managing to prod it towards Carlos Bocanegra who could not turn it goalwards from less then six yards out. Rosicky – who else? – had another effort blocked before being withdrawn for Nicklas Bendtner. Emmanuel Eboue too made way for Theo Walcott, who came on at a similar stage and circumstance a year ago against Villa to great effect.
The urgency stepped up a gear after these changes. Kolo and Alex exchanged passes from a short corner, leaving Kolo free to get a shot away from the left-hand edge of the area which was superbly saved yet again by Warner. It really was looking like one of those days, and the nail could’ve been in the coffin as more sloppy defending saw Clint Dempsey race through only to toe-poke his shot well wide of the post. As we entered the final 10 minutes, my dad, who had been previously watching the cricket, crouched around my laptop along with my mum in the vain hope of providing some luck for the boys. And how they did. On 83 minutes the marauding Kolo Toure waltzed past a few Fulham players before being bodychecked on the edge of the penalty box. The ref pointed to the spot and the Emirates waited with baited breath before Robin stepped up to slam the penalty home, very Shearer-esque into the top corner. With penalties like that he must take over as the full-time taker from Gilberto. Unstoppable, and game on. A year ago, we equalised against the Villa at the very same time but we unable to force home a winner. Had we progressed since last year? We would find out in the next 10 minutes…
The first chance for a winner fell to Bendtner, who leaped well to power a header downwards which was unfortunately straight at the keeper. The young Dane was in the thick of the action, controlling a long lump forward from Cesc before holding off two challenges to swivel and shoot straight at the keeper again. Sandwiched in between these two efforts was yet another piece of kamikaze Arsenal defending as Kolo got himself into a right mess trying to chest the ball back to Jens. The ball ricocheted off his foot instead, but thankfully it trickled wide.
Then the moment came as the clock approached 90. Cesc dinked a lovely ball over the top for Alex Hleb, who had broken clear of the defence. He controlled well, looked uncharacteristically composed in front of goal, and wrong-footed the keeper, sending the shot through the defender’s legs and into the bottom corner. The Grove erupted with a mixture of unadulterated joy and relief, and so did I.
Theo had a chance to wrap it up as he raced clear before stepping on the ball and losing his momentum. Instead of squaring to the unmarked Bendtner, he had a pop himself and blazed over the bar. Poor decision-making, but his time will come. The full-time whistle came and the players were over the moon having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The spirit in the squad shone through as they gathered for an impromptu post-match huddle with the job (eventually) done and three points on the board.
As for individual performances, Jens had a ‘mare with his gaffe early on but recovered ok, making a few decent saves but nothing spectacular (unlike his opposite number, who looks like David James without hair). The defence looked shaky as a unit, nothing new there, but still very worrying nonetheless. Going forward, Sagna and Eboue seem to be perfect foils for each other although Clichy was quiet on the opposite flank. Rosicky didn’t create much from that side either but he did manage to get a lot of shots away so fair play to him, he looked much happier out there than at any time last season. Flamini was industrious as always, funny to think that he was a dead cert to leave not so long ago, while Cesc was at the heartbeat of all our moves despite not being at his sparkling best. Up front Robin ploughed a lone furrow being ably supported by Hleb, who was my top gun of the day. In this position it seems like Wenger has unearthed another potential matchwinner. However this formation looks much more suited to a European away tie rather than a home league game against ‘lesser’ opposition, although I think injuries to Ade and Eduardo forced Wenger’s hand. Theo was penetrative when he came on but lacked a final ball, and Nicklas was very dangerous indeed as he gave us the extra option of pumping the ball forward. He is definitely a valuable alternative to have on the bench, especially in such games where we are frantically chasing a goal (hopefully we aren’t in this situation too much though…)
As for comparing this performance to a whole host of identical ones last season, I can only direct you to the first game of last term. Like I already mentioned, our equaliser today came at the same time as the one we grabbed against Villa a year ago. However whilst back then we couldn’t find a winner, today we did, to the eternal credit of the players. Going into the game, I’d anticipated a few problems getting the first goal, but after we did I thought we’d go on to cruise and get another couple. I had not accounted for the ‘curse of the Emirates’ to strike again. And had the curse fully worked its black magic, I fear the players would not have mentally progressed from last season. Sure, the performance was very similar to many we gave last season: dominating possession, creating and missing lots of chances, conceding a sloppy goal. But this time round we had an extra something compared to last season, as illustrated by the reaction of the players after Van Persie’s penalty as they attempted to get the match restarted ASAP so they could get a winning goal. Last season, we would’ve been content with a draw having almost run out of steam in the pursuit of an equaliser. Today though the equaliser served to reinvigorate us in our search for all 3 points. Many times last year we had supposedly broken the ‘curse of the Emirates’. Well I’d like to petition that THIS comeback victory has truly banished any notion of the curse well and truly to the history books, moreso than any such victory last year.
A word on the spirit too. The last time we achieved such a dramatic victory was against Manchester United with a late goal from Robin and of course Thierry at the death. That day, the celebrations were all centred on our old skipper with little regard to the rest of the team. Against Fulham it was very much a team effort as proven by the huddle at the end of the game. Little things like that can make all the difference in the long run.
On the face of it, all it was is a ‘lucky’ win over Fulham. But in hindsight it may prove to be the most important win we have all season, especially given that it could have just as easily ended in defeat.