Back on the 23rd of February, with Arsenal struggling to score and sitting 6 points behind Aston Villa, I made the following statement:
“Once we break our 0-0 rut, which is nothing more than an excruciating novelty, we will be fine. Our defence looks strong and so does our goalkeeper. Van Persie again looked sharp, Bendtner is improving while Arshavin is more than capable of playing as well as he did against Sunderland in future games. Eduardo is back and Theo Walcott is on his way. We will start to score – it’s not a hope but a formality.
Arsenal’s next six Premier League games are three home contests against Fulham, Blackburn and Manchester City and three away trips to West Brom, Newcastle and Wigan. Aston Villa, on the other hand, host Stoke, Tottenham and FA Cup conquerors Everton and have to travel to Manchester twice and play Liverpool at Anfield. They will drop points. We’re likely to drop some too, but some quick maths indicate to me that we’ll be at least level with Villa by the second week of April.”
Astonishingly, our 4-0 defeat of Blackburn coupled with Villa’s overnight loss to Tottenham (!) means we’re already fourth, a full two weeks ahead of the date that I predicted. Our superior goal difference means that although both Villa and Arsenal have collected 52 points it is our boys and not the team from Birmingham who sit snugly in the final Champions League place.
The manner in which we dispatched of Blackburn was fantastic. As is the norm, Sam Allardyce sent out his team to test us physically but an Arsenal side containing the attacking quartet of Nicklas Bendtner, Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott was too hot to handle. Our boys played with pace and power – something that has been missing with the likes of Walcott unavailable and Arshavin struggling for fitness – and it was a joy to watch.
Wenger’s starting team was spot on. Taking the opportunity to rest Robin van Persie, William Gallas and Abou Diaby after the draining experience in Rome, the manager relied on his faith in Bendtner, Johan Djourou and Alex Song to fill in the gaps and none of them let him down. Indeed, with the exception of Arshavin and ascintillating Walcott, the aforementioned trio were the most important contributors to a comfortable victory – providing a strong spine down the middle of the pitch that has often been missing this season.
There will be undoubtedly be people who criticise Bendtner for his inability to score any of the numerous opportunities he created, but there is also no denying that the Dane’s all-action display allowed the smaller, pacier players around him to flourish. It was his endeavour up front that allowed Wenger to administer a 4-5-1 so successfully and I think the manager was right to focus on the Dane’s touch and movement than his inability to finish in his post-match press conference.
While the Dane performed admirably it was Arshavin and Walcott who were the real stars of the show. The pair combined to open the scoring in just the 2nd minute, forcing Andre Ooijer into an own-goal, while Arshavin added a second with a beautifully-crafted individual effort. Set free on the left by Denilson’s pass the Russian skipped past Danny Simpson before lifting the ball over Paul Robinson from the narrowest of angles. A simply sublime goal and very much like this one (1:48 min into the clip) scored for Russia during qualification for Euro 2008.
Meanwhile Walcott caused Blackburn trouble all afternoon with his phenomenal pace and direct running. Although his touch was a little inconsisten at times the sheer panic his speed and unpredictability caused the Blackburn defence was thrilling. That Stephen Warnock, Blackburn’s captain and left-back on the day, was pulled off on 55 minutes awas a compliment to Walcott’s performance. Looking retrospectively at things, we’ve certainly missed him.
Arshavin capped off his contribution late on when his fierce shot was parried into the path of substitute Emmanuel Eboue, who duly tapped home. The Ivorian celebrated his goal with a ridiculous dance – understandable really, given the season he’s had and the painful lack of goals he has provided over the years – before embracing his Russian teammate. Unbelievably, Eboue had a second minutes later when fellow subsitute Carlos Vela won a late penalty and the craziest man in the squad decided he would take the kick. A fine kick it was too, adding the icing to a delicious afternoon cake.
While it’s important not to get too carried away things, it would also be criminal to downplay our undeniable return to form. The arrival of Arshavin has had an impact as has the return of Walcott, while the recent improvement of Alex Song means that things are looking more solid in the middle of the park. We seem to have that cutting edge back to our play and given the quality of players still to return from injury – Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor – I see no reason why we can’t hold on to fourth spot and push for silverware in the FA Cup and Champions League.
We’re back, make no mistake, and it feels bloody good.
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