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By Max Burman
While Liverpool's title hopes were dealt a huge blow by a beach ball, things are going swimmingly at the Emirates.
As Sunderland exposed Liverpool's weakness without Gerrard and Torres, and permanently Alonso, Arsene Wenger's men dispatched Birmingham with a new found comfort. Wenger was even able to shuffle his pack after the international break to show the strength his squad now possesses. Injuries to Clichy and Bendtner,and still Nasri,kept them out while Arshavin and Sagna were rested, Gibbs, Eboue and Walcott deputising impressively.
For the first 20 minutes at the Emirates, Arsenal showed a difference in their play to last season; as Mcleish's men tried desperately to stifle their football(Birmingham could have had 5 bookings before half-time), Arsenal not only managed to play round Birmingham but, where in previous years against lesser sides they have been shut out by stout defending, the Gunners' new abundance of world-class attacking talent and new formation that bewildered even Man United's defence for large parts allowed them to take a decisive lead.
On the 16th minute, a weak clearance found its way to Alex Song, beginning to look the part in the Arsenal midfield and putting in an outstanding performance yesterday. The man fulfilling the holding role then displayed Arsene Wenger's philosophy, stepping forward and threading through a pass most other teams' creative midfielders would dream of. He found Van Persie who, after a slow start is now thriving upfront and has scored 4 in 4, controlled with a slice of fortune before slotting expertly past Joe Hart. 2 minutes later and a free-flowing move found Eboue, another who has overcome scepticism to impress recently, the Ivorian threading the revitalised Tomas Rosicky through down the right and his cut back finding Abou Diaby who calmly placed into the opposite corner from Joe Hart's despairing dive.
Everything then turned slightly sour for the home side before the break. First, Theo Walcott who had twice impressed by skipping past Liam Ridgewell, uncomfortable out of position at left-back, and once nearly beating Hart with an audacious clip, was scythed down by a robust Ridgewell challenge,the defender got the ball but Walcott appeared to jar his knee and was forced off for Arshavin. Then, a floated cross into the Arsenal box was headed into the air by Diaby and Mannone, continuing in goal despite the return of Fabianski, failed to jump high enough and spilled the ball at the feet of Lee Bowyer who smashed in.Sebastian Larsson who won a penalty in similar circumstances against David James, did look twice at the young 'keeper and back in but Mannone should have done better. Perhaps he mistakenly thought this referee would award a free kick if an attacker dared to look at a 'keeper,something which seems to have crept in to the rules in recent years.
However, Arsenal didn't stumble and crumble as they may have before. Although they were less impressive in the second half and Birmingham's defence kept them out for large parts, Van Persie came closest when he crashed a wrongly awarded indirect free-kick against the crossbar, they did seal the victory. As the final whistle loomed and Arsenal remained one goal ahead, it was apparent that memories of a certain 4-4 draw had not left the minds of the home crowd. This side though is different; youngsters a year more mature, more experience with the likes of Rosicky and steel in the shape of Vermaelen helping them to keep the visitors out. The one moment when Birmingham threatened, Mannone made up for his error by palming Mcfadden's cut back away from danger with O'Connor lurking behind. Arshavin then displayed another huge difference from last season, himself. The little Russian collected Fabregas' pass before almost strolling to the box and curling majestically past Hart in the relaxed fashion he's become renowned for.
That put the seal on Arsenal's three points and if they continue to pass the challenge at almost every key moment of their matches, Arshavin may be lifting his finger to his lips in May having silenced Arsenal's critics, not just the opposing fans.