Monday, November 08, 2010

Rocky delivers knockout blow

Arsenal 0 - 1 Newcastle Utd

Oh how pleasing to be able to use that title in a back page sense - even if his alleged antics are once more front-page news...

OK, hands up who thought that we'd follow up the destruction of the Mackems by returning home from the Emirates with all three points? Or that, having ultimately strolled to a comfortable victory on our previous trip to London a fortnight ago, we'd manage to repeat the trick?

It would have been grossly unfair on any player to have been left out in the wake of last Sunday's display, so Chris Hughton opted for a subtle yet crucial change of tactics rather than personnel for a game that promised to be a far sterner test than the one posed by 5under1and. Rocky and Big Lad appeared to have been asked to drop deeper to link up play where necessary and ensure that we weren't overrun by Arsenal's five-man midfield - and it proved to be a masterstroke.

Much had been made of the 4-0 League Cup defeat we suffered at the Gunners' hands a week and a half ago, but Hughton wisely read more into the performances than the scoreline, the latter warped by bad luck and bad refereeing. Only Tim Krul and Mike Williamson started both games, while Rocky's cameo as substitute had given us sufficient impetus and incision to rattle the Londoners' back line and hinted at the trouble he might cause them over a full 90 minutes.

We started brightly, bossing possession with surprising ease, and pressed with purpose but no end product. Arsenal seemed content to let us have the ball, safe in the knowledge that they could rip us apart on the counter-attack.

Hairy moments were few and far between, though. Tim Krul could have been caught out by a Cesc Fabregas free-kick that took a slight deflection and smacked back off the crossbar, and made a superb one-handed save to tip Samir Nasri's shot over. But by and large we were comfortable, not least because Marouane Chamakh was spectacularly out of sorts up front for the Gunners.

Just as I was fearing we might not go in 0-0 at the break, a goal came - but for us. From ASBO's free-kick, Lukasz Fabianski underlined for the umpteenth time why Arsene Wenger should have signed a world-class 'keeper in Shay Given long ago by stuttering out of his six-yard area and allowing Rocky to storm in and power a header into the empty net.

Had we poked the hornets' nest? Three minutes into the second half it very much looked that way, Theo Walcott hitting the face of the bar with a shot from close range. But the anticipated onslaught never came and instead the pattern reverted to that of the first half, with us in control to such an extent that "Oles" for successfully completed passes were coming from the jubilant away end. Robin van Persie, Andrey Arshavin and Niklas Bendtner all came on for the home side as they struggled to find any of their usual fluency, but thankfully to no avail.

The ineffectiveness of the likes of Chamakh, Fabregas and Walcott wasn't simply a matter of them being off-colour - it was also a measure of how well we had managed to nullify their threat. Williamson and Sideshow Bob were excellent, while Danny Simpson enjoyed arguably his best game for the club and Cheik Tiote continued to make a mockery of his modest transfer fee by rendering Fabregas utterly impotent. Going forward, ASBO's right-footed delivery from the flank or through the middle was a potent weapon and Rocky, ably assisted by Big Lad, perpetually outmuscled and terrorised Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny. Like Mrs Nolan, they'll be waking up in cold sweats at the thought of pony-tailed bruisers...

We had the added pleasure of riling Wenger - clad in what appeared to be a club-crested sleeping bag - with a leisurely approach to taking set-pieces. Given that it's nine years since we last won at Arsenal, surely he could understand us wanting to pause and savour the moment? Perhaps he was late for a secret assignation...

Gael Clichy and Fabregas had both been booked for malicious tackles and two minutes into stoppage time Koscielny was sent off for clumsily dragging down Big Lad's replacement Nile Ranger. Perhaps a tad harsh as Squillaci may have been able to cover, but Mike Dean's decision had no bearing on the outcome anyway, the final whistle following soon after.

Before we last triumphed on the Gunners' turf in December 2001, the game that so memorably ended the four-year London hoodoo, we hadn't even contemplated the possibility of victory and so it was a revelation to discover that the three points had taken us to the top of the Premier League. This time, once again, few (if any) of us had foreseen success, and so our propulsion to fourth came as a very pleasant surprise (we did drop back down to fifth by the end of the day, though, with Man City's defeat of West Brom). No one expects us to stay there, but with Blackburn and Fulham the visitors to St James' this week, we have a great opportunity to cling on for a while yet.

Arsenal fans' views: Another Arsenal Blog, Arsenal Insider, Goodplaya, Gooner Talk, The Gunning Hawk

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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