Okay first things first, let’s get all the over-exaggeration and hyperbole crap out of the way: it is not the end of the world. The 28-game unbeaten would’ve been in jeopardy at the best of times facing a team like Sevilla on their own patch, never mind with a weakened side. But we had already qualified for the next stage, so Le Boss could afford to rest a few players. And even then, look at how Cesc limped off with a hammy problem…now imagine that happening to Willy and Ade as well...do you get the picture?
If ever there was a game to lose the run, then it was this. Far better to lose it here than away at Anfield, at home to the Mancs or in any of our forthcoming league games. The longer it went on, the more likely it was to play on the team’s mind. A defeat like the Wayne Rooney-inspired Everton one in 2002 (after which we lost the following three) or the Mike Reilly-inspired one to end our 49-game stretch (after which we never recovered) would have been far, far more damaging.
With the already announced news that Willy, Ade and Gael were to stay at home, it wasn’t obvious who would line up for The Arsenal, with the main sticking point being in the centre of the park, given our plethora of central midfielders. In the end Wenger plumped for the experience of Gilberto and Cesc alongside the strength of Eboue and the guile of Denilson, who retained his place from Wigan on Saturday. Eduardo was once again marooned out on the left (although he drifted inside a fair amount) and Bendtner was the target man.
Not much going on in the first ten minutes and then bang! 1-0 to The Arsenal. Bendtner received the ball wide on the right and flighted in an absolute peach of a cross to Eduardo. The Crozilian chested it down and took advantage of a lucky ricochet before slotting it home from less than 6-yards. That’s what we signed him for, scrappy strikes like that, not zipping past his man and then delivering a cross from the byline or tracking back to help his full-back out. A special word for the assist too – I remember in the game against Sheffield United that Bendtner had a touch of the Bergkamps about him with the way he dropped deep and linked play. Well this ball was out of Dennis’s playbook, and I can pay it no higher compliment than that.
Like I said in my match report for the Wigan game, when Arsenal go a goal up, we’re the best in the world. Knocking the ball about with ease, playing it to feet, running into space, pulling markers out of position…it’s an absolute footballing masterclass. And it was much like that for the fifteen minutes following Eduardo’s goal, until a rickett from the returning Big Phil Senderos caused havoc in our area. Sevilla advanced down the right and although their pull-back was partially cut-out by the retreating Gilberto, it fell kindly for Keita who lashed it in with his left-foot. We hadn’t conceded in Europe for six games up until that point, and do you remember what happened last time we went on a long run of European clean sheets and then conceded unexpectedly???
…yep, we conceded again almost straightaway. Talk about London buses eh? Following the equaliser we were shell-shocked, not so much at conceding I think, but the manner in which we did it. From bossing the game to being bossed, and all because of a cock-up. Ten minutes after the leveller came Sevilla’s second. Navas, the diving c*nt, won a cheap free-kick down our left. Dani Alves – who is very good from these set-piece situations – whipped it in and Luis Fabiano exhibited great movement to eluded his marker(s) and nod it across goal and into the bottom corner. The ITV4 commentator (I think it was Jim Beglin) said that Almunia could have done better, but he had no chance. Beglin had the knives out for Almunia all night actually, always questioning his positioning, since when did Beglin beocome president of the Jens Lehmann fan club?
From thereon in it was always going to be a struggle. However we could have got back into immediately. Bendtner again showed good strength to hold off defenders and got into the box. Faced by the keeper, he had the wherewithal to knock it back to Eduardo who was waiting unmarked, but his low drive was somehow diverted wide by the sprawling keeper. The last five minutes of the half were harem scarem in our box. Kanoute put wide a chance very similar to Keita’s goal, and Keita himself had a rasping strike well held by Almunia down low to his left. That was it for a frustrating first-half, I was thoroughly pissed off at the time, not because we were losing but the way in which the action had unfolded.
At the beginning of the second-half the man at the thick of the action was the much-maligned Eboue. He showed some skilful footwork and a good turn of pace in the box before being blatantly fouled by Christian Poulsen. Whether it was obstruction (thereby resulting in an indirect free-kick) or a straight-up mistimed tackle I’m not sure, but either way it was a foul. The ref waved play on, and to rub salt into our wounds he booked Denislon in the aftermath for a tasty challenge on the edge of the Sevilla box.
We seemed to be building up a decent head of steam but that all went flat once Cesc felt his hamstring and came off. Hopefully it was an extremely precautionary measure. Rosicky came on for him but after the young Spaniard’s departure we lost our rhythm. It was in fact Sevilla who made most of the running for the ensuing fifteen minutes, they manufactured a number of half-chances and looked very dangerous indeed, I can’t remember the last time we were under the cosh like that. It all culminated midway through the half when a low cross was fizzed into our box and for some unbeknown reason Senderos stooped to clear instead of knocking it away with his feet. The ball clearly struck him on the chest – had it hit his arm it would not have rebounded away at such pace – but confusion arose and the ref gave a penalty. Or did he? Following consultant with his linesman he overruled his own decision, fair play to him because the lino was in a much better position. You can always tell it is a pen when the defender looks around sheepishly after committing the crime, but Senderos didn’t have a clue and was absolutely flabbergasted at the initial decision.
We then resorted to going long towards Bendtner – completely understandable given the situation we found ourselves in. However nothing positive materialised from it. I distinctly remember one occasion where he got a decent flick-on but because Eduardo was stuck out wide he couldn’t latch on to it and Rosicky’s natural tendencies are not those of a poacher, so the move was wasted. I can’t wait for Robin van Persie to come back now, not just because of how good a player he is, but because he demands inclusion in the team and would leave Le Boss little choice but to play two up-front. As we continued to press for the equaliser, Sevilla looked dangerous on the counter. They lived up to the typical Spanish/Latino stereotype of gamesmanship too, something which infuriated Wenger to the point where he was sent to the stands by the fourth official. Like Adebayor in last season’s Carling Cup, he took his sweet time doing so, something which may have repercussions in the next few days.
By this time Theo had come on for Eboue, who did not capitalise on his bright start to the half. We won a few corners but as always wasted them; they either go too long or fail to beat the first man. The amount other teams that benefit from the limited number of corners they receive against us is ridiculous, and given our style of play we get umpteen corners but take advantage of none. Rumours are that David Beckham is gonna train with The Arse over the winter – if they are true then hopefully he can teach our set-piece takers a thing or two about delivery. From one of our last attacks Sevilla broke down the right and the ball came across the goal for Kanoute. He was bundled over by a mixture of Toure and Sagna according to the ref, and stepped up to coolly sidefoot home the resulting spot-kick to well and truly put the final nail in our coffin. In fact we could have even conceded another goal, but thankfully we didn’t.
So that is that then. The end of the Club record unbeaten run, and listening to Clive Tyldsley you would have been forgiven for thinking that it was something akin to the end of the 49-game unbeaten run, such was the way he went over the top. I could rant and rave all night as I am still slightly annoyed as I write this, but I won’t. This wasn’t a heart-wrenching setback like the Invincibles and Jose Reyes being kicked into touch, nor did it have the drama of a Wayne Rooney last-minute wonder strike. It was a regulation defeat away to a good team. It could have been avoided mind you, especially because we got off to a flier. But such is life.
A few things I would like to comment on. Firstly, I have been a big Senderos fan since his time here, remembering fondly his run at the end of 2004/05 and of course his part en route to Paris in 2006. I read elsewhere that, like old boy Sol Campbell, he needs a few games to shake off the rustiness. But time is something we don’t have anymore, with the games coming thick and fast. And with Djourou not being on top form at Birmingham, all of a sudden we are looking thin at the back with Kolo away for a month. This brings me on to my next point: Gilberto. I felt he looked out of sync with the rest of the midfield, almost like he was a step behind. Whether this is due to lack of games or tiredness from his round trip to Brazil, I’m not sure. In fact, I reckon it is more down to the style of the team’s play evolving into a higher tempo, something illustrated by Flamini usurping him in the first XI. Whilst there have been many rumours about a January move to Juve, I would not sell him. But nor would I play him in midfield anymore. Instead, I’d deploy him as a centre-back. Senderos had a bit of a shocker in the air against Kanoute, and it is widely acknowledged that Gilberto is one our best players aerially.
My Top Gun for the day goes to one Nicklas Bendtner. He led the line fantastically, holding up the ball well, shrugging defenders off with his strength and getting out of tight situations with some nifty footwork. Add to this his obvious mental capacity for the game – he is very shrewd and clever on the ball, his distribution and lay-offs are excellent and he is strong in the air too. I would like to see him get a few one-on-one chances to see what his composure is like. If it is there, and if he can adopt the workrate of Ade, then he is a real star in the making. In fact I can envisage him combining well with Robin, because he is clever enough to drop off the front whilst the Dutchman makes a run in behind the defence. He can feed balls through as well as he can flick them on. And amazingly he is only nineteen.
In the long-run the important thing to come out of the defeat isn’t the end of the run. Nope, its more that we may now finish second in the group, thus exposing us to a potential heavyweight clash with Barca or Real or Inter or AC Milan. In a way it may not be a bad thing as we tend to thrive when we are the underdogs – remember the road to Paris when we dispatched Real and Juve, whilst we were favourites against Villarreal and only scraped through, not to mention last season’s upset by PSV. But in all honesty, you’d rather avoid the big guns for as long as possible. One thing I am confused about is the permutations…on ITV4 (by the way, why in the London area are we on ITV4?!), the commentators kept saying that we need to win against Bucharest at home and Sevilla need to lose away in Prague for us to finish top. As it currently stands, we are second on 10 points, Sevilla top on 12, but we have better head-to-head results, so surely if we win and Sevilla draw, we finish top?
Anyway, enough with the European permutations. We’re through, that’s the main thing. And even more important than that is three points on Saturday at the Villa. I wish John Carew gets food poisoning before the game, just to be safe.