Wednesday, December 29, 2010

After Relief, Grief

Man Utd played Sunday afternoon, then Tuesday evening; Alex Ferguson did not make many changes from one starting eleven to another. United visibly tired towards the end of the Birmingham game and shipped an equaliser that might yet end up proving costly in an unpredictable title race.

Arsenal had even less recovery time between the euphoria of Monday night and the mundane trip to Wigan. Wenger decided to use the fullness of his squad. Only Fabianski, Sagna and Koscielny survived from the previous line-up. Wilshere joined them when Diaby all-too-predictably broke down in the first half.

After a high-energy performance on Monday, there was probably little choice; wholesale changes had to be made. Unfortunately, this impacted on the team's fluidity, and Wigan often looked the better side. The absence of Gibbs meant Eboue had to defend on his "wrong side". Arshavin was vintage Arshavin: lethargic and frustrating- he scored one brilliant goal and set up Bendtner's.

That sent Arsenal into half-time with a lead they scarcely deserved. Wigan had started at a high tempo, hastling the Gunners much as the Gunners had hassled the Blues. The dangerous Nzogbia had Arsenal on the ropes early on. Arsenal attacked dangerously but- surprise surprise- were opened up on the counter. The winger advanced to the edge of the area where he jinked by two challenges. The latter came from Koscielny, and N'zogbia fell over it into the box. Penalty. Watson dispatched it with minimum fuss.

The goal was a little unlucky for Arsenal. The challenge was not inside the box, for a start. Secondly, Koscielny merely wafted a foot in N'zogbia's direction, then pulled out- the contact was no more than a slight brush, if that. It was a dive, albeit the kind of dive that never gets condemned.

Before half time, Arshavin acrobatically gobbled up the rebound after Bendtner's shot had been parried to level matters. The Russian had been abject to that point but the goal provided him with a boost and he glided forward minutes later to flick a pass to Bendtner. The Dane benefited from a lucky ricochet to bear down on the keeper but his finish was assured and Arsenal had turned it around.

Of course a one-goal lead is never safe for Arsenal. Sadly, despite the perceived freshness of the starting line-up, they failed to work as hard without the ball as the team of Monday night did against Chelsea. Wigan threatened at intervals throughout the second period; Arsenal merely sat back and invited it. They surely ought to have better tested the soft centre of their opponents, in trying to put the game to bed.

Wenger's changes came too late- he was reactive rather than proactive. The reaction only came after Wigan equalised. As the final ten minutes loomed, N'zogbia got himself sent off for a headbutt on Wilshere. Instead of closing the game out, however, Arsenal duly conceded. Squillaci underlined his rotten form by finding his own net from a corner. As Wenger said, an extra man doesn't count for much while your team is defending a set play. Especially when the team in question CANNOT defend a set play. I don't think Arsenal could defend effectively with 15 men.

So, belatedly, Nasri and Walcott stepped onto the pitch. The former had a free kick handled in the area in the death throes of the match- no decision. But Arsenal should not have left themselves needing last gasp decisions.

UNITED's draw at Birmingham presented an opportunity for Arsenal to assert their credentials as closest challengers for the title. It was a vital chance to gain ground. Instead, the gap remains at two points, but may as well be viewed as five, with United holding a game in hand. Such a lead would not be insurmountable but the question hangs in the air: can Arsenal put a run together? Are they good enough to stop dropping points to the lower lights of the league?

They have a decent squad in numbers and there is more depth of quality than at some of the other leading clubs, but no depth of character. They seem to lack the necessary confidence when Fabregas is missing. The absence of Vermaelen is cruel but Wenger could surely have scouted for a more able centre back than Squillaci. The team's lack of a winning mentality was perhaps summed up by Koscielny's resigned acceptance of the contentious penalty award. That happens to United or Chelsea, there would be some unseemly hounding of officials.

The story of the week so far: Arsenal can beat Chelsea after all, but look no closer to winning the title.

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