One-nil to The Arsenal. Whip out your Pet Shop Boys albums and rejoice, because amazingly enough that was the first time we’ve ever recorded a single-goal victory at The Emirates in any competition.
The main news since last Sunday’s draw away to Blackburn and the international *yawn* week was the apparent "injury" to Jens. Echoes of the Henry "injury" before the Spurs home game last December abound, all the moreso with the rumours in certain papers that the Krazy Kraut had walked out in a huff a la Thierry. Wenger is a true diplomat and should be applauded for the way he handles these situations: instead of blatantly dropping his players he protects them from such ignominy by faking/exaggerating that they have an injury, thereby allowing them to rebuild their form away from the public spotlight.
So Manuel Almunia – recently crowned the Club’s crossbar challenge champion – was set to take over in goal, and another enforced change in defence was Phil Senderos stepping in for injured skipper Willy Gallas (calling him the skip still doesn’t come naturally to me). However the back-line was to suffer further disruption moments before kick-off as Phil aggravated his ankle in the warm-up, the returning Gilberto taking his place alongside captain-for-the-day Kolo. Ade too returned up-front to partner Robin and with Eboue still out Alex Hleb reverted to the right-wing. Flamini retained his place partnering Cesc despite Denilson’s return to full-fitness.
The biggest talking point was the form of our opponents and their especially their keeper, one Kasper Schmeichel, the son of Ian Wright’s and Dennis Bergkamp’s old nemesis. He had yet to concede, which I reckon was a fair bit through luck having watched Manchester United lay siege to his goal last weekend. 5 minutes in and Robin nearly blew his record away with a shot from 20 yards that fizzed over. As with all shots that blaze over the bar, it looked much closer after watching the replay. Top of the table City were no mugs though with England Under-21’s Michael Johnson breaking through the centre and feeding Martin Petrov. Thankfully he skewed his left-foot shot wide of Manuel’s near post. In all honesty, had Johnson been endowed with the pace of his American sprinting namesake, the curse of The Emirates may have struck YET again. Up the other end Tommy Rosicky played a delightful ball over the top with the outside of his right foot and straight into the path of Ade, who opted to lay it off to Cesc instead of running through to goal. Cesc duly sliced his shot harmlessly into Schmeichel’s hands. Ade’s endless running and spearheading of the attack had caused the surprise league leaders a few problems early on.
Then came another body blow to Arsenal’s defensive fortunes as Bac Sagna clashed with the Flamster. The new boy could not continue further, making way for Denilson as his injurer slotted into right-back. The last time Denilson and Cesc were in central-midfield with Gilberto at the back was that fateful day against PSV…definitely not a good omen. This re-jigging served to unsettle the side as first Elano had a low shot comfortably saved by Manuel and then Petrov hit another one past the near post. Before the break though we started to turn the screw with Schmeichel looking shaky in the air. Flamini and Robin had shots blocked on the edge of the area, and then Robin was merely inches away at the back post from connecting with Cesc’s low cross. The Flying Dutchman is making a habit of popping up at the back-post to get on the end of low crosses (Man Utd last season and Barnet in pre-season) and long may it continue. Ironically Robin then turned provider as he flashed a cross-shot across the face of goal, but Ade didn’t have Robin’s nose for ghosting in at the back-stick as he was caught on his heels waiting for the cutback. A more canny team would have sensed Schmeichel’s uncertainty under the high ball and exploited it better – this nous will doubtless come with experience.
Throughout the entire first-half Robin dropped deep to good effect, being able to turn and run at the defence and either shoot or play someone in. He did that exact thing in first-half injury time as he turned and slipped in Rosicky, evoking memories of ye olde Bergkamp-Overmars combination. Unlike the Old Master though, Robin’s pass was slightly heavy as the ball trickled through to their keeper. He certainly looked more at home with another man to share the attacking burden.
We finished the first-half on top and it was much of the same at the start of the second with Ade being prominent. For his first game of the season he looked bright, if not totally sharp in front of goal. Alex broke clear on the right-wing (encouragingly, one of many times) before delaying his cross (frustratingly, one of many times) enough for the very solid Richard Dunne to avert any danger. On the opposite flank Rosicky seemed to be getting more involved too, cutting in from his wing and releasing an effort with his right peg. Unfortunately it was blocked, but with the Little Mozart’s touch and technique it shouldn’t be too long before he opens his account for the season.
Then all of a sudden our momentum fizzled out and City gained the upper-hand. The closest they came all game was again through the powerful left-foot of Petrov, this time his daisy-cutter thankfully skimming wide of the far post with Manuel beaten. Petrov again got clear on the left and sent the ball into the box but Gilberto cleared. I can only attribute the obscene amount of space he was afforded to the fact that we had a central-midfielder at right-back and a man who had played previously as a half-striker at right-midfield. Flamini and Hleb is a far cry from Sagna and Eboue in terms of solidity. We were then lucky not to give a penalty away as the ever-clumsy Kolo scythed Johnson down dangerously close to the box, but the ref waved their claims away. Their spell was punctuated by Emile Mpenza being put clear through on goal from a neat Ireland knock-down. He hesitated enough for Manuel to come out, spread himself and make the save. Peter Schmeichel would have been proud.
From there on in Arsenal never looked back, taking the game to our opponents. Alex was very influential down the right as he once again broke into the box but again delayed his cross, before a lovely ball from Rosicky – who had come in off the left – sent him racing through on goal. Poised to pull the trigger, flavour of the month Micah Richards hacked him down for a stone cold penalty. Even with last season’s penalty-taker Gilberto on the pitch, Robin confidently stepped up and contrived to smack the ball too close to the middle of the goal and into the shins of Schmeichel. Le Boss mentioned in his post-match interview that the Villa Park cup semi replay in 1999 flashed through his mind as a Dutch Gooner was faced with beating a Schmeichel from 12 yards out. Today, like then, the Dane came out on top. While that penalty miss deflated our troops of ’99, it simply served to stoke the fire of today’s team. Van Persie, not really one to go into hiding, was straightaway to the fore as he forced a save with a well-hit low shot that was arrowing into the bottom corner. This Arsenal team were not going to wither and die in the heat on the back of one penalty miss, and testament must be paid to their fighting spirit. Cesc was next up to test the seemingly unbeatable Schmeichel, his awakardly moving shot causing the Dane to acrobatically tip the ball over the bar. "We shall not be moved!" bellowed the travelling City fans, and they may just have been right. Hleb was persistently looking dangerous, having a shot blocked and then setting up Cesc who was put off by onrushing defenders.
As I said before, Robin ain’t the type to drift out of games after a mistake, his single-mindedness refusing him from doing so. However, this desire to make up for his penalty gaffe had its disadvantages too as he twice looked to shoot instead of laying off to the clear Rosicky. Wenger shook things up (about 10 minutes too late in my humble opinion) by handing Eduardo his home debut as the Crozillian replaced Ade, whose last contribution was to power past Dunne but then imitate a Jonny Wilkinson drop-goal.
Only 10 minutes remained – was it to be one of those days? Not on your nelly! Alex Hleb again again again caused havoc down the right, this time his footwork toying with their left-back before squaring the ball between two blue shirts to Cesc who proceeded to lash home an absolute stunner into the roof of the net from a tight angle. If ever you wanna break a keeper’s clean sheet record then that’s the way to do it: emphatic.
The final minutes were much ado about nothing as Gilberto and Kolo mopped up any potential danger. Gooners taunted their rival fans with chants of "Top of the league, you’re having a laugh!" as Rosicky raced clear on the left, stepped inside the full-back and unleashed a rising shot which was bound for the top corner had Schmeichel not palmed it away. The rebound fell to my Top Gun for the day – Alex Hleb – but his left-footed effort went narrowly wide. The boy from Belarus nearly poked it through to the sprightly Eduardo but credit to Richard Dunne who remained unbowed in the face of imminent defeat. The final bit of drama involved Kapser Schmeichel – who else? – as he came upfield for a corner in the dying seconds. He connected with a header but his opposite number dived high to his left to gratefully grasp the ball. And so it finished 1-0 to the relief and delight of a fairly vocal Emirates crowd.
Like I said before, the first 1-0 win at our new home. The usual scoreline is 1-1, 2-1 or 3-0, so it makes a refreshing change to know that we can score first, be under the cosh thereafter and still not concede. The clean sheet will have done wonders for Manuel who must know that he has been presented with an absolute golden opportunity to claim the no.1 jersey. He’s no spring chicken either so he knows it may be his last chance, what with Lukasz Fabianski also coming through the ranks.
Gilberto looked like he’d been a centre-half all his life: one tackle just before half-time was brilliant in it’s simplicity. He also offers the height that Kolo and Willy don’t and with the defensive deficiencies we have I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at the back more often in the near future. As long as Diaby is in midfield this could work as Cesc and Denilson are too similar to be a dynamic duo – neither lacks bite in the tackle but are both relatively short, and so Diaby’s physical presence would be a must.
The injury to Big Phil is a worry and unfortunate too. Regular readers know I’m a big fan of him despite his tendency to make the odd ricket, and with Gallas out for at least 3 games he would’ve loved the chance to have a run in the team. Hopefully it’s a minor injury because we are seriously short-staffed at the back now, especially with the murmurs of Johan Djourou having picked up an injury at Birmingham. The injury to Sagna doesn’t help either, although we are better covered out there with Hoyte or Flamini or even Eboue (when he regains fitness) able to fill in adequately.
Cesc and Denilson worked ok in midfield, but I wouldn’t be happy entrusting my midfield with them simply because they are too similar physically. That said, they did well tactically as they rotated who went forward and who stayed back quite efficiently. Against the more physical teams it will not be so easy, especially away from home. Out wide Rosicky is slowly improving game-by-game but still lacking in end-product. His mate Hleb seems to have found an end-product, setting up the goal today. Lest we forget that Hleb has had an extra year at the Club compared to Rosicky, so I guess patience is a virtue. Annoyingly though, Hleb is no crosser of the ball. For once we are getting bodies in the box but with Hleb out wide their service was limited as he delayed too much too often, always waiting for a midfield runner to square the ball to. While it paid off for the goal, the forwards will certainly relish the return of Emmanuel Eboue and Bac Sagna to the right flank. Assuming that Arsene sticks with two up top, this may leave Rosicky and Hleb in a straight shoot-out for the left-midfield position, and competition for places is no bad thing.
In attack Ade looked energetic. I particularly like the way he runs at defenders from a wide position, thus giving midfielders the chance to break into the box. Robin too was more comfortable with a partner and utilised his creative side more as he came off the frontline. This position gives him so many more options than when he is a lone striker – instead of only being able to hold the ball up or turn his marker, he can now run at defenders and either shoot or pass, making him doubly dangerous. Eduardo gave a nice 15 minute cameo at the end, always making himself available for the ball. I’d like to see him start against Sparta Prague on Wednesday alongside either Ade or Bendtner (I assume Arsene won’t risk Robin as he is on a yellow card). Ade will drag defenders away from the centre and so leave more space for Eduardo to poach in, whilst Bendtner will provide knock-downs for the ‘quicksilva’ Eduardo to run onto. A final word about the forward line: where was Theo today? By all accounts he was sparkling for the Under-21’s in midweek, so I hope Wenger was just resting him and will unleash him against Prague.
So a win and a clean sheet, can’t ask for much more than that at this stage of the season. Onwards and upwards.