The Arsenal ensured that they would be top dog for Christmas thanks to a winner from our very own jolly old Saint Nick in an intriguing second-half, which came on the back of a very dreary first 45.
The Gunners predictably made eleven changes from the under-21 side that beat Blackburn in the Kids’ Cup in midweek as they reverted to the lineup that vanquished Chelski last weekend. This meant that there was no place for Robin up-front as Le Boss restored his fluid 4-4-1-1 formation with Hleb in the hole. It became clear that the Dutchman had picked up a "slight injury" so whether we would have reverted to a 4-4-2 had he been fit, we will never know. I was dismayed by his absence because I had been thoroughly looking forward to seeing the two-pronged attack which looked so dangerous when he came off the bench last week. Immediately before the game Spurs won the toss. I’ve heard that when the Scum go away from home, it is a tradition for them to reverse the ends if they it. For example, were they to win the toss at Anfield, they would make Liverpool shoot away from the Kop in the second-half. True to their traditions they switched it round here as well, making the home side shoot away from the North End in the second-half. It made for very strange viewing on the telly seeing us play from right-to left in the first-half, and my sources at the North End of The Emirates were not best pleased either.
We’ve never been at our most fluent in these early kick-offs and so it proved in the first period. Apart from a fast start which saw the Flamster hooking the ball into the side-netting within the first five minutes, there was little attacking verve from Arsenal. Five minutes later Lennon got down the right and stood up a cross to the back post – had Sagna not been there to flick it away then it would landed straight to Robbie Keane. Throughout the first-half Spurs’ most threatening attacking outlet came from Lennon, who was engaged in almighty, pace-filled duel with Gael. Everytime he got the ball it seemed more like a 4-3-3 from the visitors, such was the high position he took up on the pitch.
The first save of note was made by England’s number one (I laugh while I type that). Ade received the ball on the edge of the area and slipped it through to Eboue, who took a touch and then blasted it goalwards. It had the requisite power but was too close to Robinson and at a decent height – so even he was able to save it. Then came a crap decision by ref Rob Styles, who was ultra whistle-happy through the 90 minutes. From behind, Gallas nicked the ball from Berbatov but made contact with the Bulgarian on the follow through. It was a 50:50 foul but the ref gave it, and then he had the gall to book Willy for protesting. Seeing as he didn’t book a couple of Spurs players for similar dissenting action in the second-half really rankled me, but of more immediate danger was the free-kick from which Almunia saved comfortably from Berbatov.
Then in injury time we won a corner, just like against the Chavs last week. While it was Willy who did the trick then, this time it was Kolo who nearly repeated the feat as he headed Cesc’s corner goalwards but close enough to Robinson for the keeper to save it. So nothing coming from a pretty dire first-half in which the depleted visitors looked comfortable. They had a very makeshift back four and midfield but we had not exploited it. When the passing is crisp and the movement slick, the 4-4-1-1 works a treat. But on days like this when it is off-the-boil, we look toothless. The creative trio of Rosicky, Hleb and Cesc looked out of sorts, especially the young Spaniard who misplaced plenty of passes. At least with two up-front there are enough numbers in attack to pose a threat. For example there was an instance in the first-half when Cesc played a diagonal ball over the top for Ade. The big man controlled it well and held the ball up before sending it into the box with no-one there as the midfield struggled to join him.
However, as I said in my review for the defeat at Boro, having these matchwinners in the side makes a big difference, regardless of how they are playing. The difference between these players and the rest is that they are able to produce something out of nothing, irrespective of their own performance or the opposition. And never did this ring truer than three minutes after half-time when Cesc and Rosicky linked up down the left which saw the Spaniard breaking into the box. With seemingly no option but shoot, he produced a blind backheel to Ade who had been following-up the play behind. In acres of space in the inside left channel, the Togonator made no mistake as he slipped the ball past Robinson with a finish very much resembling a certain Mr. Terence Henry. The way Cesc found him was sublime, a lot of talk has been made recently about having a picture of the pitch and the players’ whereabouts in your mind before receiving the ball and this was a prime example of it. So 1-0 to The Arsenal and surely we would kick on from here, right?
Wrong. We descended back into the uninspiring offerings of the first, which was the perfect signal to invite Totteringham back into the game. Had we put them to the sword straight after the goal then it would have deflated them, grabbing a goal or two and the cruising the rest of the game. But instead it was our lack of creativity that allowed them back in. We didn’t create anything for the 20 minutes following the goal, and then they equalised. A throw down their right found Keane who cleverly flicked it through for Berbatov. As he hammered his effort in from a very tight angle I got flashbacks of the great Gabriel Batistuta doing similar to Dave Seaman at Wembley. Initially I thought Almunia was slightly at fault because no keeper should concede at his near post, but the replays showed that Kolo got a slight deflection on the shot which elevated it above the Spanish keeper and out of his reach. The goal was coming because minutes earlier Keane hit the woodwork with a volley from six-yards out. A cross was lofted in from Lennon and Sagna had followed Malbranque all the way across the area, leaving Keane free at the back stick, but thankfully he spurned the chance. I seem to remember a goal conceded against Sunderland at home when Sagna vacated his right-back position to come more central, thereby leaving space at the back post, so this may be something the defence needs to work on.
At that stage of the game and the way Spurs were playing, it looked like we’d do well to survive and get a draw, which says as much about our lacklustre performance as it does about their spirited one. Only five minutes after conceding the equaliser we could have, nay, should have, gone behind. The ball was bobbling around in our box and Kolo clumsily felled Berbatov. As Keane stepped up my mind was already wandering to the last fifteen minutes and the frantic rush of seeking an equaliser. I mistakenly underestimated Almunia as he pulled off a great save from the Pikey, diving low to his right and getting a firm hand to the ball. Seeing as he came so close to saving Downing’s pen at the Riverside, this was a just reward for him. We’d got a massive reprieve so the onus was really on us to find a winner. But we could the players produce a rare moment of magic?
Indeed, it wasn’t the players who produced the defining moment of the match – it was the managers. As we won a corner with fifteen minutes left, Monsieur Wenger brought on Nicklas Bendtner to replace the ineffective Eboue. And Wenger’s counterpart, Senor Ramos, committed tactical suicide as he took off the penalty-missing Keane to be replaced by Jermain Defoe. It was a double whammy in our favour: we had an extra forward that needed marking and they had just lost someone who knew the drill at set-pieces. Cesc crossed in the corner and Bendtner rose to meet it and plant it past the despairing Robinson with his first touch of the game. Good movement from the Dane saw him get away from his marker, who seemed to have been (unintentionally) blocked off by Kolo – a tactic that Willy has no doubt brought over from West London. That goal really knocked the sage and onion stuffing out of the Scum as they created sweet FA for the remainder of the game and the gleeful Gooners saw out a barely-deserved victory.
So in the end we got the win that would see us definitely remain top at Christmas, regardless of how the Mancs fare against Everton. We were nowhere near our best and I’d actually venture as far to say that Spurs deserved a point (that’s as much praise as you’re gonna get out of me concerning that lot down the road!) The game turned on three moments of inspiration from those in red – first Cesc’s unbelievable backheel to set up Ade’s opener, then Almunia’s save from Keane’s pen, and finally Le Boss’ decision to throw Bendtner on at the most opportune time. He has often been criticised for his substitutions, but this one was spot-on.
On the whole the defence coped well with Spurs’ often three-pronged front-line. Willy and Kolo kept Berbatov and Keane in check for the most part, but is such is their individual quality that they are bound to get free sooner or later, which they did for the equaliser. Out wide Gael and Lennon had an almighty battle which probably finished honours even – Traore will have to be at his very best to contain the young England winger when the teams meet in the Carling Cup in January. And with a lack of similar offence from Spurs’ left, Sagna had a quiet but effective game. The midfield barely clicked apart from the opening goal, I think the saying is: "form is temporary, class is permanent". Up-front Ade ploughed a lone furrow, gave his all as usual and, of course, continued his fantastic scoring run against the Scum. He was eventually joined by Bendtner up-front, who didn’t do much except score the winner – now that’s what I call efficient! And I’m pleased to see that he’s even got his own song now – instead of Super Nic Anelka, it’s Super Nicklas Bendtner, and long may it continue because this boy is going places.
Finally, I must reserve my highest praise for Manuel. In time, his penalty save may rank in Gooner folklore alongside Jens’ against Riquelme or van Nistelrooy’s miss that the propelled the unbeaten run, and that’s why he gets my vote for Top Gun.
We weren’t great but whether that was due to the lack of spark in midfield or the formation which isolated Ade, I’ll leave you to discuss in the comments section. But by hook or by crook we eked out a victory, and when you can do that despite playing so poorly against your most hated rivals (who played pretty well), you sense that you’re onto a winner. Merry Christmas folks, enjoy being top of the tree.