On Sunday I posted some brief post-game thoughts on Arsenal’s 3-1 over Stoke. Today, having calmed down with the advantage of two days time, I go into more detail.
While the strongest memory of this win will no doubt be the injury to Aaron Ramsey, there is a growing feeling that we might soon look back on this game as the pivotal moment in our unlikely title charge.
After going behind to a goal scored from Stoke’s first throw-in of the match, I had a sinking feeling that we might not be able to overturn the deficit and come away with the three points required to close the gap on Chelsea at the top. When Stoke continued to push for ten minutes after their goal I started to wonder first how we were going to get our rhythm back and second, how we were going to score.
The answer was with the type of goal that only Nicklas Bendtner can score, a towering header from a superb Cesc Fabregas cross. It was the best headed goal I have seen this season and proved to be the catalyst for a superb team performance. From that moment we seized control of the game, moved the ball efficiently and create chances, all the while preventing Stoke from taking one of their trademark throw-ins for almost an hour.
But then Ramsey had his leg broken.
The reactions of our players were justifiably intense and all too familiar. This really was Eduardo all over again and considering the timing of the injury and the way in which we crumbled at Birmingham two seasons ago, I didn’t expect us to go on and win the game. I really didn’t.
Once Ramsey left the pitch on a stretcher and the stadium in an ambulance the match continued, essentially at half-speed. Out passing rhythm had been severely retarded as the attacking players instinctual runs into space were replaced by paralysed half-efforts. In short, it didn’t look like we would get a goal.
But slowly and surely our rhythm returned. Fabregas was at the heart of everything and when Eduardo had an extraordinary opportunity to win the game in headline-grabbing style, he poked wide. It was a huge chance and as he lay on his back reflecting on the miss I felt it might be the last good one we would get in the game.
Remarkably we continued to push and were rewarded with a second consecutive penalty, correctly awarded against Stoke’s goalscorer for handball. Only he knows what he was doing with his hand stuck out that far and although it was quite clearly ball-to-hand, the decision was spot on.
I celebrated the penalty award with more gusto than I’ve celebrated most goals this season, before I realised that the score was still 1-1. I also realised, as Fabregas stood over the ball, that Sorensen had saved his kick from twelve yards earlier in the season.
I was 90% sure Fabregas would do his usual thing and 95% sure that Sorensen would dive the right way. Cesc did, Sorensen got a hand on it but it nestled in the net. 2-1, an unbelievable moment in our season and all of a sudden it looked like we had completed the most courageous of tasks.
The third goal from Vermaelen sealed the victory and gave the boys the opportunity to enjoy their achievement. If the celebrations after Cesc’s goal were full of passion and relief, the celebrations after Vermaelen’s were full of pride. The sight of Vermaelen pumping his fists in typical hardman fashion as a joyous huddle formed around him, complete with Sol Campbell, one leg raised screaming into the away support, is one that I will remember for a very long time.
At the end of the game Gael Clichy and the captain pulled the team together in an Invincible-like huddle. The knew the importance of what they had done and were aware of the effort it took. They had stolen a victory, against the odds in many respects, under the same circumstances that saw us lose the title two years earlier and in the process putting them within three points of the league leaders.
All in all, a fabulous win.
I don’t usually do individual performance reviews but I really feel it is justified after such a terrific team effort. Usually there are two or three or even four or five players that stand-out but in this case virtually every one of the eleven who started the match deserve special praise.
Manuel Almunia did a good job in goals, doing what he could against Delap’s throw-ins and was in no way responsible for the goals. He was always quick to get the counter-attacks going when he could as well, often seeking out the cleverly-utilised Emmanuel Eboue as a speedy outlet.
Sol Campbell and Thomas Vermaelen were both colossal at the back, providing excellent physical presence as well as invaluable mental strength. Vermaelen’s response to Ramsey’s injury was the most distressing of the Arsenal players on the pitch, perhaps because he had not experienced it before, but he calmed down quickly and produced a superb effort to score the third goal.
Meanwhile Campbell, in one game, has justified Arsene Wenger’s decision to resign him to the club. He was brave and powerful but like Vermaelen, excelled even more in the leadership and inspiration department. His anger after the Ramsey incident may have swayed the red card in our favour while his celebration at the end said it all. He bleeds red and white and his drive is certainly wearing off on the players around him.
Sagna had an efficient game while Gael Clichy enjoyed an excellent return to form. Many people, myself included, have been worried about his performances since returning from injury but this was vintage Clichy, driving forward when possible and using his speed to great effect in mopping up at the back. What’s more, like the central defenders, his leadership qualities were to the fore, giving support to Vermaelen after the injury and getting quite vocal to ensure the team remained focus.
Alex Song seemed to switch on after the first goal and from that moment was superb. He did his job perfectly and even got forward a number of times, providing Bendtner with the pass that setup the penalty and cleverly feeding Eduardo for his late chance. The yellow card that he received was nonsense and will see him miss the next two games.
Alongside Song was the unfortunate Aaron Ramsey and the irreplaceable Cesc Fabregas. Ramsey was having a good game before he was taken out, providing great drive and purpose from the central areas. His loss will be a big one not only in the long-term but also in short-term, as Ramsey was playing consistently well and really starting to make his mark on the team.
Cesc meanwhile was the best player on the pitch, setting up the first and third goals, scoring the crucial penalty and providing several moments of inspirational leadership. This was the individual performance of season and if we go on to win the title we will all look back on his effort with immense respect. A jaw-dropping effort by a stunning player.
Up front Bendtner got his second goal in two games and proved a handful all day. I’ve said to a couple of people that I really feel he could do a Freddie Ljungberg from 2001/02 and score ten league goals before the end of the season to push us over the line. His goal could not have been scored by any other player in the squad and his general willingness to get involved makes the players around him improve.
On the wings Samir Nasri had a great game, proving a perfect pivot for the likes of Clichy and Fabregas to work off, while Eboue repaid the manager’s faith in starting him by delivering an immense performance. In many ways Eboue played like Diaby, pushing into the space behind Bendtner and driving at the defenders, but it was clear that his primary purpose against Stoke was to provide us with a counter-attacking outlet. Every player looked for him on the break and he didn’t let them down, controlling the ball well under pressure and consistently turning defence into attack by winning a throw-in or a free-kick.
So all in all, a great team performance. Every single player played well under pressure and they thoroughly deserved the victory.
I can’t really put it any better than Arseblogger already has. His take on things is absolutely spot on and you can read more here if you want.
We are in a terrific position to win the title, it’s as simple as that. If the bottle we showed at Stoke can be consistently replicated throughout the remainder of the season then I believe we will win it. In fact, looking at the table and the fixtures and galvanising effect that the injury to Ramsey appears to have had on the players, I’d have us as favourites.
Not that I’m getting ahead of myself, of course.
Have your say on Arsenal’s remarkable win over Stoke by leaving a comment.