The Christmas period is over, the new year has begun and Arsenal are exactly where they want to be; two points clear at the top of the Premiership table.
The last time I posted anything football-related before the holiday break a much-changed Arsenal side had sensationally knocked Blackburn out of the Carling Cup and sat at the top of the Premier League after beating Chelsea for the first time in four years. Thankfully not much has changed since.
Arsenal’s tough Christmas fixture list started with what proved to be a difficult encounter at home to Tottenham where Manuel Almunia and Nicklas Bendtner proved to be the heroes, the former saving a Robbie Keane penalty and the latter scoring with his first touch after coming off the bench only moments earlier.
Next up was a tricky Boxing Day trip to Portsmouth where a dull goalless draw saw Arsenal displaced at the top of the table for the first time in long, long while. It was a rather unispired performance by Wenger’s side and had it not been for some wonderful tracking by Gael Clichy to prevent Benjamin Mwarurawi from scoring in the second half it could have been even worse.
Arsenal got things back on track just a few days later with a surprising and flattering 4-1 over in-form Everton at Goodison Park. The away side lead at half-time after Tim Cahill pounced on a Nicklas Bendtner error but Eduardo da Silva turned the game on its head soon after, scoring twice in the space of nine second-half minutes. Bendtner was then sent off for a shocking studs-up challenge on Andy Johnson before substitute Emmanuel Adebayor put the contest to bed after Tim Howard and Joseph Yobo’s mix-up. Tomas Rosicky added a fourth with virtually the last kick of the game. That result combined with Manchester United’s shock loss to West Ham meant that Arsenal finished the year at the top of the table; a wonderful result considering they were under the pump after slipping off the perch only days earlier.
Arsenal’s impressive holiday period performances concluded with a routine 2-0 New Year’s Day victory at home to the side that had beaten their major title rivals in their previous fixture. Eduardo impressed again, slotting home another lovely goal in just the second minute while Adebayor scored the game’s other goal from the tighest of angles midway through the first half. Arsenal then went through the motions in the second-half to protect the result and seal their fifteenth win of the season, subsequently maintaining their two-point lead at the top of the table.
Some (welcome) new heroes
Although the performances were a little stuttering, there’s no doubt that ten points from a possible twelve over the Christmas period was a very positive outcome for Arsenal. With the exception of the West Ham game, Wenger’s side were well and truly tested in each fixture and it was nice to see some different players step up and make some significant contributions.
Question marks surrounding Manuel Almunia’s ability to win points for the club has been a major talking point in the past, but he continues to perform consistently. A nerveless performance in the 1-0 win over Chelsea was a fine indication of the improvements he has made but it was always going to take something special to convince the doubters that he has developed into a top quality goalkeeper. Thankfully, he finally got that moment after saving Keane’s penalty in the victory over Tottenham. In my eyes it was one of the highlights of the season so far and quite simply turned a potential defeat into three precious points.
There’s little doubt that Cesc Fabregas and Alexander Hleb have gone through a little bit of a lean patch since returning from injury. As a result, more responsibility has been placed on Mathieu Flamini and Tomas Rosicky’s shoulders. I’m happy to say that in the past few matches they have responded admirably. Flamini has been a model of consistency and in recent times Rosicky has shown that he is only a little bit away from his very best. Once Fabregas and Hleb find their groove again it is not improbable that the Arsenal midfield will dominate the second half of the season.
And then there is Eduardo. Seriously, did anyone see that coming? Three goals and two match-winning contributions in the past two matches mean that he has made a welcome contribution to Arsenal’s title charge. Once Robin van Persie returns there is little doubt that he will be straight back on the bench again but the variety that the Croatian brings to the Arsenal attack should not be underestimated. What’s also interesting is that the Croatian’s mini scoring-spree has come six months after signing for Arsenal, the exact amount of time Wenger predicted he would need to adapt to the Premiership. Exciting times lay ahead.
In other important news coming out of the Christmas break, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Alex Song are off to Ghana to compete in the African Cup of Nations. The former two will of course represent the Ivory Coast while the latter has been called up to the Cameroon squad for the first time in his career. The biggest loss is undoubtedly Toure, who has struck up a great partnership with William Gallas this season, but with Johan Djourou returning from his loan spell at Birmingham and Philippe Senderos waiting in the wings the players are there to cover for his loss.
Personally I’m hoping that Wenger puts Djourou straight back into the starting team. Although his loan spell at Birmingham has been far from perfect I feel he is the more composed defender and the switch from playing in a losing team to a winning one should give him that little bit of confidence to make the step up.
Finally, the word on the street is that Mexican winger Carlos Vela, who has impressed during his loan spell at Spanish club Osasuna, will be returning to Arsenal for the second half of the season. Anyone who has seen highlights of the young Mexican will be very excited about his return to England and anyone that hasn’t, please take my word for it. Or just watch this compilation of him tearing up Sergio Ramos time and time again during Osasuna’s recent clash with Real Madrid. It’s impressive stuff, no doubt.
If Vela does return then I can’t really see any reason for Wenger to dip into the transfer market. As you will of course know by now, the turn of the year means that transfer window is again open and that equals a lot of hocus-pocus stories about every man and his dog being linked with a move to Arsenal. Although I admit that the centre of defence could use some reinforcements over the next six weeks I also don’t believe that Wenger is short-sighted enough to bring in a player to simply plug a gap for a short space of time. Indeed, if someone is brought to the club then there is little question that they will be a long-term project for the manager. Baring that in mind, if a player is purchased by the club there should be significant cause for celebration.
On that note I want to take the opportunity to wish all readers of the blog a happy new year and also apologise for the lack of posting over the holiday break. As I said on Christmas Eve I’ve been very busy with all sorts of goings on but for those who read the blog regularly you’ll be happy to know things are back to normal as of today. Thanks for your patience, and all the best in 2008. Go Arsenal!
What do you think?
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