What a pleasure it is to be writing to you today.
After a very tough run of games that has seemingly knocked the confidence out of players and saw the English media right us off as title contenders, the 1-0 win over Liverpool means we’re back in it.
Except that we were never out of it.
I said before the Aston Villa game that I felt we would be a decent chance for the title if we could end these four games around five or six points behind the league leaders. Chelsea’s unsurprising loss to Everton and Manchester United’s draw at Villa Park means we have achieved that mark.
With just a gap of six points to make up and a favourable run of fixtures to come means I genuinely feel there is cause for optimism in what Arsenal may still achieve this season.
Regarding the Liverpool win, the thing that impressed me most was the level of patience and self-control that our boys managed to achieve.
Worried about the threat of the Liverpool counter-attack, Arsene Wenger clearly instructed the team to play more conservatively and work themselves into the game. An opening half of missed passes and lacklustre movement proved an unwelcome side-effect of those instructions, but the payoff was that Liverpool never threatened.
Samir Nasri’s concussion did not help proceedings as his ten-minute period of grogginess denied our team balance until his replacement by Tomas Rosicky. Our two best opportunities of the opening half where a characteristically wild strike by Nicklas Bendtner and a scuffed effort by Cesc Fabregas. Meanwhile Liverpool were restricted to one Maxi Rodriguez shot.
The second half was something of a different story as Liverpool and our boys traded blows.
Lucas had an early sighter before William Gallas denied David Ngog with the best Arsenal tackle of the season. Tracking back from Liverpool’s only successful counter-attack of the evening, Gallas produced a last-ditch sliding effort to stop Ngog after the French striker had wriggled free of Thomas Vermaelen.
It was inspirational stuff from Arsenal’s best player of the match and almost inspired a goal at the other end. Andrey Arshavin, who had an otherwise quiet game, fed Rosicky with an excellent through-ball but the Czech winger was caught in two minds over whether to shoot or pass to Bendtner in the middle, eventually causing him to mis-control at the vital moment.
It was Nasri against Chelsea all over again but thankfully it didn’t cost us.
Pepe Reina made a save from Bendtner after a typically blustering run before the Dane was booked for diving just outside the area. It was uncharacteristic of a player who has shown to be one of the most honest out there and although the decision was spot on, you have to wonder what stopped referee Howard Webb from dishing out the same punishment to Steven Gerrard for two acts of simulation that were just as bad.
The final twenty minutes saw a flurry of action: the winning goal, a terrific save by Manuel Almunia and a controversial handball by Fabregas in the dying moments that saw us run out with the three points.
Unbelievably the winning goal came from the head of Abou Diaby.
Bendtner and Rosicky combined well before the Czech man sent in our first good cross in the last 6 months to leave a perfectly-placed Diaby with the simple job of powering home. It was a great goal – the sort that I feel Arsenal supporters enjoy the same way that Stoke fans love it when their team manages to score after some nice passing – and was only bettered by the celebration, which saw Diaby mobbed by teammates Theo Walcott and Fabregas.
Almunia’s contribution to the night came soon after as he superbly tipped a Ryan Babel fizzer onto the bar. He’s come in for a lot of criticism in recent weeks but in my opinion had a strong game tonight, handling the penalty area situations well and producing this crucial save.
With the clock ticking down and our boys seconds away from a vital win, Gerrard got away with a dive in a move that saw Dirk Kuyt fouled. Gerrard took the free-kick, Fabregas blocked it with his hand. The Arsenal captain was on a yellow at that point and was fortunate not to be sent off, but in the end the referee waved play-on before blowing the final whistle seconds later.
Arsenal 1, Liverpool 0. Beautiful.
I mentioned before that Gallas was my Man of the Match but credit must also go to Bendtner and Diaby as well as the manager for his team selections and tactics. It’s clear that the two tallest players in our squad give our play much more variety and we looked a far danger proposition in attack than in the previous two games without giving away too much at the back.
Alex Song stuck to his role of shielding the back four and produced a much improved performance. Fabregas had an off-game but got a lot of support from his midfield partners, surprise starter Emmanuel Eboue had a good game at right-back while Rosicky was a handful after replacing Nasri.
This was a game won more in the mind than the body and our players need to be commended. They played a patient, intelligent possession game that reaped dividends the longer the game wore on and responded admirably to two crushing defeats that surely must have dented their confidence.
It was a surprisingly good end to a difficult period of four matches that ultimately still mean we’re in with a genuine title chance.
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