What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago we were all acclaiming the ability to grind out an undeserved victory away from home. And since then it’s gone a bit pear-shaped as we’ve suffered 180 minutes of being outplayed in the North-East. At least at Newcastle we came away with a point, but here against Boro we got sweet FA and deservedly so. We were flat as a pancake.
The team, surprisingly, remained unchanged from the aforementioned Newcastle game. This meant that Eduardo would get another chance to prove his worth, hopefully from his favoured striking position, whilst Gilberto and Diarra – both anchormen by nature – would need to conjure up more than they did at St. James’ Park.
Boro started brighter and won a penalty through old-boy Jeremie Aliadiere after a couple of minutes. As a Gooner I’d say it was never a pen because his touch was heavy and he was running away from goal. But if that happened to one of our strikers at The Emirates then I’d be screaming for a pen. Kolo didn’t really need to barge him though, but I guess Almunia rushing off his line and not getting there didn’t help. Downing sent it low to Almunia’s left and while he got a touch, the power was too much for him to keep it out.
The first chance of note we created was midway through the half, Rosicky bobbling a shot wide from 20-yards. Does anyone else remember that cracker he scored in the World Cup? Talk about giving us false hope eh? Ten minutes remaining in the half and we won a free-kick very central but a long way out. Having seen a previous effort by Kolo blocked by a wall that was only 5-yards way, Eboue decided to chip one into the box. It nearly worked as Ade got on the end of it at the back post but directed it slightly wide. Keeper had it covered though. Boro were playing some decent football, especially Tuncay and Jeremie up-front, both were willing runners and caused problems to our backline as they got in behind numerous. Had they been a more clinical and confident team, we would have been put to bed by half-time. Chances were had and missed by Rochemback and Tuncay, who was a real thorn in our collective arses.
Eduardo was taken off at half-time (no surprise because he didn’t do nowt in the first 45) and replaced by Bendtner. With that change at least the defenders had two big strikers to aim to with long ball. He barely had a chance to settle when Boro could have gone two-up as Tuncay was slid through in the inside-right channel looking suspiciously offside. Thankfully he slipped his finish inches wide of the far post.
I think the referee was called Homer Simpson, he dished out a few stupid bookings to Kolo and then Gael. Kolo’s maybe was deserved but Gael couldn’t pull out of his challenge (if you can call it that) and the Boro player made a meal of it. Funny how a few minutes later the ref missed a real bit of nasty play from Eboue – who else? – as he raked his studs down Stewart Downing’s thigh. He’ll claim it was his follow through from clearing the ball, was it bollocks. Every single game he either commits some histrionics or does something nasty off the ball, and it is very unsavoury.
We didn’t look any closer to getting back into it and Boro should have been over the horizon by now, their latest effort coming from George Boateng whose shot whistled past the post with Almunia beaten. Then on the hour-mark Le Boss tried to shake it up as he sent on Theo and Denilson for Eboue and Diarra. I didn’t agree with taking Diarra off simply because he was not our worst central-midfielder on the pitch, Gilberto was. We finally gained some momentum as first Bendtner had a curler that went high and wide and then Ade got into the box down the left but his cut-back to Rosicky was scrambled away. But they weren’t clear-cut chances at all, we were so bereft of attacking invention.
Just as you thought we might possibly be sneaking back into the game, Boro went and scored again. It came from a set-piece (no surprise there) as O’Neil’s shot was parried by Almunia but Tuncay lashed home the follow-up. Game over. Theo nearly pulled one back as he exchanged passes with Ade and got into the box. He could/should have shot but instead took an extra touch and was forced wide. He managed to dig out a cross to the back-post but Bendtner’s looping effort was tipped over. Deep into injury time with the last play of the game we grabbed a consolation, a square ball from the left eventually coming through to Rosicky who was arriving late. He fired it into the bottom corner, but it was too little too late to save the day. Still, it might be vital come the end of the season.
Simply put, we didn’t deserve anything. You would have thought that Boro scoring so early may perversely have worked in our favour as it would force us to come out and perform better than against Newcastle in midweek, but it didn’t. A lot of credit for that must go to the home side because they realised that their best form of defence was attack. However, I don’t buy the theory that this is a newfound method to confound us, I just felt that it was one game too many to try and cope without three-quarters of our first-choice midfield and our no.1 striker.
Almunia’s handling looked safe for the most part, but again his decision-making will come under scrutiny. I personally let him off for his rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment against the Mancs which saw Ronaldo score, but now maybe it is a chronic weakness in his game? I’m not sure. The back-four didn’t do much wrong individually but as a unit looked very shaky. In recent weeks we have leaked a lot of goals and if the forwards aren’t firing then it does not bode well.
We didn’t cope well in midfield at all. Boro harried and hassled us, forcing us to make too many sideways and backwards passes. When this happened, the defence lost confidence in the midfields ability to create, so they kept launching it long. In the first-half it was extremely unfruitful, I lost count of the number of times I saw a long ball from right to left end up going out of play.
Up-front it was dire. Ade was having an off-day where he couldn’t trap a bag of sand, whilst Eduardo was just invisible. I have a lot of sympathy for Eduardo – as a new player the best time to blood him is at home against weakened teams when we’re firing on all cylinders, so if he has a ‘mare then at least the other players can carry him. But away from home when we’re without two of our most creative forces is not the best place to judge him. I hope he gets a start on Wednesday against Bucharest alongside Bendtner, he seems to have taken to the European games better and could do with a confidence boost…I mean, when was the last time you ever saw Wenger sub someone off at half-time???
Rosicky was the best of a bad bunch so he gets my vote for Top Gun of the day. I bet he’s relishing the return of at least one of Cesc or Hleb, someone the same wavelength as him. How I’m glad that this week is over and that we’re now returning to The Emirates. It’d be great if we can banish this performance and result with a good showing against Bucharest in midweek, and finishing top of the group would be a bonus. Because we certainly don’t want to be heading into our next league game against Chelski with our tails between our legs, ‘cos they are on fire. We could have been six points clear at the top heading into next weekend, which meant a draw would have been an acceptable result against the Chavs. But now United and Chelski themselves are breathing down our necks and if things go horribly wrong then we could end up in third position this time next week, and Liverpool would still have a game in hand on us.
What have I learnt from this defeat? When we’re playing well (i.e. the first-half against Villa last week), we’re nigh on unstoppable. Even when we’re playing average but still have enough matchwinners on the pitch we’re solid at the back and dangerous on the break. But when we’re away and playing poorly and the crowd is acting as a 12th man for the home team, without matchwinners were are mediocre. Because that’s what matchwinners are, the ones who can create something out of nothing, transforming an average performance into a winning result. And how desperately we need our matchwinners back for next week.