Sunday, November 19, 2006

Just capital!

Arsenal 1 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Right, here's the theory: set out with low expectations (or, better still, none at all) and you can't be disappointed.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work like that in practice.

Before yesterday afternoon's game, I feared the worst and was steeling myself for a four goal drubbing at the Gunners' new North London home. But at full-time there was a twinge of disappointment at the thought that we were just twenty minutes away from escaping from the capital with all three points and a first league win in nine games.

But, of course, a draw itself represented a tremendous achievement, given our recent run of form, and the performance - dogged and determined, albeit aided by a couple of strokes of good fortune - was enormously encouraging.

Glenn Roeder opted to shuffle things around, bringing fit-again duo Kieron Dyer and Obafemi Martins into the front line in place of Shola Ameobi and Antoine Sibierski, while Nobby Solano returned at James Milner's expense. Emre's suspension meant a start for Nicky Butt, but perhaps most significantly Shay Given was back in goal, two months after sustaining a bad injury at Upton Park and fresh from having to do absolutely nothing for the Republic of Ireland against San Marino on Wednesday.

Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, decided to leave Thierry Henry on the bench after his 90 minute workout for France in midweek. Be thankful for small mercies, I thought.

As expected, even without their talismanic forward Arsenal began on the front foot and pressed us back. Julio Baptista had a very early header off-target and that set the precedent for what was to follow - the Gunners creating half-chances and shooting from distance but finding themselves unable to break through.

And then, remarkably, we took the lead with half an hour gone - our first Premiership goal since the home defeat by Bolton on 15th October. Martins flicked on to the lively Dyer, who baffled his marker and finished clinically past Jens Lehmann with a right-footed curler from the edge of the box. According to today's People, Dyer has confessed to feeling "embarrassed" at picking up his wages when he's spent so much time out through injury. That, added to this goal and performance, is a start - but he'll know he's got a lot more to do yet.

Predictably this stung Arsenal into action and Emmanuel Adebayor and Alexandr Hleb both had decent efforts. Robin van Persie went particularly close before succumbing to an ankle injury which led to the introduction of Henry for the second period.

The pattern remained the same: occasional breaks from us, with Martins holding the ball up well for once, as a brief respite from incessant but unproductive Arsenal pressure. Captain Scott and Nicky Butt were tigerish in their protection of the back four, for whom Titus Bramble was excellent - and even when our massed defensive ranks were breached, Given reminded us (and Steve Harper) exactly what he's capable of, performing his usual heroics to deny Fabregas and Henry.

The only question was whether we could hold out until full-time. In last season's curtain-raiser, we'd lasted until the 80th minute, when Henry tucked away a penalty awarded for a Charles N'Zogbia foul on Freddie Ljungberg, our ten men eventually succumbing to a 2-0 defeat. And it was the Frenchman who did the damage again, curling home a superb 25 yard free-kick via the underside of the crossbar after he had been fouled by Steven Taylor.

Desperate for victory, the Gunners continued to push forwards, and Henry came horrifyingly close to a second when his deflected shot clipped the post, Parker once again getting in the way of a strike on goal. Mercifully, though, they couldn't score again and we could breathe a big sigh of relief. All the talk since has inevitably been of Arsenal's faltering, of their title challenge being over, but much credit has to go to a resilient and focused display from the opposition.

The point took us above Sheffield Utd (who lost at home to Man Utd) and out of the relegation zone on goal difference, while next weekend's opponents Portsmouth did us a massive favour by condemning Watford to a last-gasp defeat. Happily Charlton continued to play as haplessly under Les Reed as they have been under Iain Dowie, going down 2-0 at Reading.

All good, then - but it could have been just that little bit better...

An Arsenal fan's perspective: East Lower

Other reports: BBC, Observer


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