Thursday, February 11, 2010
Just When I Thought I Was Out...
THEY PULL ME BACK IN!
Arsenal 1-0 Liverpool
09/10 continues to defy convention. I'm happy we won a game- it seems like ages- but this recurring trope of crushing disappointment followed by nagging optimism is starting to seem a little cruel. Every time people start to write the season off, the door creaks back open. And yet the definitive sensation one feels is that it ultimately won't matter that much. But I guess it keeps things interesting, at least.
A relatively poor game at the Emirates lastnight, certainly a slow-burner. While some teams tend to fly out of the traps after a disappointment, Arsenal under Wenger have always had a tendency to get bogged down in adversity, especially in recent years. Disappointing results seem to breed a lethargy that borders on self-pity. So it was against Liverpool in the first half. We weren't helped, on the face of it, by Rafa Benitez' usual plan of containment. But then again, his team's negativity was such that there was little threat of the sucker punches we habitually walk into against the more aggressive United and Chelsea. Thus, despite a listless 45 minutes, Arsenal made it to half-time unscathed. Thereafter, there was an improvement in tempo, and the game opened up as Liverpool finally became attuned to the benefit that a more adventurous policy might bring them. In the second half, we had our only real counter-attack alarm, when Willy G chased back to execute a heroic challenge on Ngog just as his fellow Frenchman pulled the trigger. Generally, there was a sense that painful lessons might finally be sinking in. At one point, Andy Gray remarked that Arsenal kept five players back while on the attack (and with the scoreline goalless). Song and Diaby ensured that Liverpool were not granted the ocean of space that others have exploited in front of our centre-backs.
In an attacking sense, it wasn't the most cohesive performance but the result was paramount after recent setbacks. Bendtner gave us a focal point, an aerial target, things that have been missed in his and RVP's absence. That said, it's hard to escape the suspicion that he's just not a particulartly good footballer, although this was hardly the night to judge him, having only just returned from a lengthy enough layoff.
The decisive moment came with twenty minutes or so to go. Rosicky, having fluffed his lines when presented with our most clear-cut opportunity, reasserted his class. The Czech maestro provided what is known in the industry as a "goal ball", daring the profligate head of my pal Diaby to even try and miss. He didn't, and thus began the familiar spectacle of a jittery Arsenal ceding ground and seeming to invite disaster. One of the things that annoys me about this team is the way that their possession football is lauded, and yet deserts them in these situations. Surely possession football is most effective when there is a lead to protect. Teams laugh in the face of our fannying around on the edge of the area, but those guffaws would turn to tears if we used that ability while they were chasing the game. I think of Barcelona's utter mastery of the ball and the game after Eto'o's opener against United in May. But I guess efficiency just isn't in our DNA. Quite the opposite. Strange things seem to happen when we're defending a lead- lastnight we were granted the spectacle of Vermaelen charging forward looking for a killer second, and Theo Walcott, when presented with the ball near the corner flag, effectively back-passing it to Pepe Reina so that Liverpool could launch another attack.
For neutrals, it's part of the charm, but I could do without that stress.
As alluded to earlier, there was food for thought elsewhere. United dropped points at Villa- and it could have been worse if Martin O'Neill's negative streak hadn't infected his team after Nani's red card in the first half. You can really tell by his reaction to Wenger's supposed "long ball" jibe that there is some truth in the apparent accusation- why else would he get so worked up about it? Villa are surely too one-dimensional to finish in the top four this season. People talk about Arsenal's inability to adapt, but at least OUR one dimension is an entertaining one. As far as I can tell, Villa just play like the away team, wherever the venue, whatever the circumstance. Lastnight, United's ten men made most of the running but it finished 1-1 and so the momentum they have ominously threatened lately is now somewhat hindered.
Speaking of momentum, Chelsea's apparent inability to build much of it may yet prove fatal to their hopes. Whatever their current strengths, they are not the relentless machine we saw under Mourinho. After their drubbing of Arsenal at their Emirates, they succumbed to a come-from-behind Man City at Eastlands; there was a sense of deja vu lastnight as Florent Malouda's early opener was consigned to memory by a fine Louis Saha double. Once again, Chelsea failed to build on a win against Arsenal, and their season has been littered with poor performances and results away from home.
A nice night overall was rounded off by Spurs' capitulation to Wolves, a rousing response to their manager's assertion that they can overhaul Arsenal, and should already be third themselves. Our 'Arry reckons that Spurs have thrown away leads that should have seen them to a much stronger position. Presumably, these include 0-0 leads against Wolves (twice) and Stoke. Fack off 'Arry. Now we know where Jamie gets his brains from.
A word also for Steven Gerrard, who subjected Arsenal to another diving masterclass. An irony seemed to pass unnoticed during the recent John Terry furore- few seemed bothered that one of the supposed candidates to replace him in the "hallowed" role of England captain was a cheating hypocrite who beat the shite out of a DJ for not playing a Phil Fucking Collins record. I'll say no more on that.
And finally, what do we make of this:
1. Chelsea 58
2. Man Utd 57
3. Arsenal 52
With twelve games each left to play?
I say, don't get your hopes up, it's a two-horse race.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the top two could lose a couple more games each, or at least drop enough points for Arsenal to again scent blood. But does anyone really see the killer instinct in this team? Actually, can anyone even IMAGINE Arsenal as champions, especially after the last couple of weeks? I certainly can't.
For one thing, we'd have to win almost every remaining game to stand any chance. I know we went on a decent run after the first Chelsea tonking, but to repeat that at this stage of the season and with the major prizes in sight is a different proposition. I still think that Wenger missed a trick (or four) in the last couple of transfer windows, and Saha's impact against Chelsea, if you're looking for negatives, can be seen to reinforce that. He made Terry look like a chump on a couple of occasions, simply by being a very decent forward player. Something that Arsenal have shown themselves to lack. To be brutally honest, I think that if this set of Arsenal players were somehow presented with a genuine chance of winning the title, they would contrive to mess it up. That's not pessimsim, but my considered opinion.
Basically: it would be ridiculous, after all I've written here, if I were to now state that I truly believe Arsenal can win the Premiership.