In a season that has served up intense game after intense game, we got another last night as our Arsenal boys powered home from a goal down to beat Everton 2-1 at The Emirates.
That the victory came after such an appalling decision from the referees to allow Louis Saha’s goal — the striker was two metres offside at the time of the pass and most certainly active in the play — spoke volumes of the spirit and will to win that our team showed last night.
The starting team included one change from what I consider to be our best current starting eleven with Tomas Rosicky getting another mid-week start for the injured Samir Nasri on the left. Despite the fresh nature of our team we failed to fashion any real chances early on, being made to work hard by a talented Everton team that got men behind the ball well.
But the game turned on its head when Saha scored. You’ve all seen the goal by now so I won’t go into it in great detail, but what I will repeat is that it was a terrible decision. Koscielny’s attempts to stop the pass were a direct result of Saha’s offside position and how the linesman and referee could decide otherwise is utterly inexcusable.
When Lee Mason went over to speak to his linesman I thought for all money the goal would be chalked off. But amazingly he pointed to the centre circle to indicate the goal would stand. My question is: what the hell did they say to each other?
The injustice of the goal was felt by the players and just as importantly, the crowd, who were immediately incensed and produced a wonderful atmosphere for the rest of the game. I never like to criticise the crowd for their apparent lack of atmosphere — having never seen a game live at Emirates Stadium I am in no place to make comment — but the supporters were brilliant tonight and no doubt inspired the team to some extent.
As for the players themselves, I thought their response was superb. Although rattled for a good five or ten minutes, we played our way back into back into rhythm despite the best efforts of an opponent who tried to spoil us at every opportunity. Johan Djourou almost scored from a header with our best chance of the half while Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott began to grow into the game, making life difficult for the Everton defence.
At 1-0 down at half-time and our players still obviously affected by the injustice of the goal, I was genuinely worried that we might fall apart in the second period. But it was exactly the opposite as we fought our way back into the game.
And when I say fought, I genuinely mean fought. We did not play our way back into the game with pretty football. We played our way back into the game with a fierce desire to win, a fierce desire to give as good as we got physically against an Everton team that gave plenty.
At this moment I have to give van Persie and Fabregas huge credit for an immense display of leadership on the night. Fabregas’ will to win is as strong as any player in the world right now but what I had almost forgotten and has become abundantly clear over the past few weeks is that van Persie shares it too. The pair were throwing themselves into tackles, harassing their opponents from the front and playing with the sort of passion that inspires teammates and excites the crowd.
Van Persie produced a moment of technical magic in the first half, back-heeling for his buddy Fabregas to flash wide, but it was his confrontation with Mikael Arteta that was more important. Incensed at the Spaniard’s willingness to stay down after minimal contact from the Dutchman, van Persie pulled Arteta off the turf in a move that positively pissed off the Everton player and fired up our team. It might not have seemed like much, but it is this sort of desire and urgency that can be the difference between the rest of the team giving up or fighting on when the game seems lost.
The manager made two game-changing substitutions just after the hour, hauling off an out-of-sorts Rosicky for Andrey Arshavin and replacing Jack Wilshere with Nicklas Bendtner.
Arshavin’s early touches on the ball were bright and he made the ultimate contribution to the team by stroking home the equaliser with twenty minutes to go. A calm, composed finish that served to remind every Arsenal supporter what a quality player he still is.
Then, just as against Ipswich a week ago, we followed up our opening goal with a quick-fire second. Just as against Ipswich it came from a corner. Just as against Ipswich it came from Koscielny.
The celebration that followed that goal said everything about the wonderful team spirit. After Koscielny’s passionate run and sliding starfish, virtually every member of the team got involved in what has to be the best doggy pile I’ve ever seen. Even Emmanuel Eboue sneaked in there, sprinting from the touchline to squeeze between Abou Diaby and Fabregas.
I thought we did well in the final 15 minutes to suffocate Everton and hold onto the lead. There was some gamesmanship and time-wasting that I genuinely enjoyed. A couple of players stayed down for extended periods, clearly under instruction from the coaching staff to stymie an potential Everton threat. It was great stuff considering what Everton had dished out earlier on and showed more signs that our team now possesses the experience and that little bit of mongrel that is required to win games like these.
To add to that theory was an amazing scene at full-time: the sight of Djourou, one of the calmest members in the Arsenal squad, still remonstrating with the referee over the disallowed goal. Was he asking him what the rules are or what could have done to prevent it? Or was he simply venting his fury at the decision? We’ll never know.
But what it did show is how desperately disappointed Djourou was to fail to achieve what would have been a fifth consecutive league clean sheet and how much he wants to prevent the same thing happening in the future. That is the sort of attitude that is required, the sort of perfectionism that pushes teams to become better and better and I found it to be a wonderful moment amongst the deserved celebrations.
On a day when both Manchester United and Chelsea produced strong victories we needed to do the same against Everton. To achieve it in such spectacular, up-lifting fashion after conceding a blatantly unfair goal was just brilliant.
Well done Arsenal. Well done.
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