Monday, February 07, 2011

Mission impossible

Newcastle Utd 4 - 4 Arsenal

Incredible. Simply incredible.

Players, commentators, pundits, hacks - please take note: THAT was a game of two halves.

On a weekend of remarkable top-flight matches, ours was the most extraordinary as we became the first team in Premier League history (or, as Sky would have it, since time began) to come back from a four-goal deficit and claim a point. Arsenal can whinge all they like about incidents in the sensational second half, but nothing can detract from the fact that that 45-minute period was one of the most stirring we've ever produced. When even ASBO confesses post-match to being left speechless, you know you've just witnessed something quite stunning.

With Big Lad ruled out through injury, Peter Lovenkrands got the nod ahead of Nile Ranger to partner Leon Best. We were however boosted by the return from suspension of Cheik Tiote, who took Danny Guthrie's place in midfield. Little did we know quite how significant the Ivorian's contribution would turn out to be.

At first, though, Tiote seemed as incapable of coping with Arsenal as anyone in black and white. Less than a minute had elapsed when Theo Walcott, our League Cup scourge, easily outpaced Sideshow Bob to slide the ball past Steve Harper; and only three when Johan Djourou scored his first ever goal for the Gunners, a header from Andrey Arshavin's free-kick. It seemed as though we were intent on losing the game even more quickly than we had against Man City on Boxing Day.

On that occasion, we managed to stabilise and fight back - this time, though, our predicament just continued to worsen. First Robin van Persie tucked in from Walcott's low cross, and then, as if to prove they could mark the Dutchman even less effectively than that, our defence gave him a free header. Arsenal had achieved the same 4-0 scoreline as in the League Cup game with just 26 minutes on the clock. Utterly shellshocked, we found ourselves staring down the barrel of the Premier League's heaviest defeat.

That Arsenal didn't add more before the break was only thanks to their easing off the gas and even then Harper was called upon to deny van Persie his hat-trick. Some Gunners fans online were apparently complaining about it being so easy it was boring, and it would have been hard to disagree. We had been simply atrocious in every single respect, woefully outclassed by a side that needs no invitation to put teams stylishly to the sword. It was like shooting suicidal fish in a barrel.

Alan Pardew refused to divulge what was said in the dressing room at half-time, but as rousing rallying cries go it must have been positively Churchillian. The side he sent out for the second period may have contained exactly the same personnel, but in attitude, application, determination, spirit and urgency it was totally unrecognisable. The same could be said of the Gunners, who somehow metamorphosised from confident, dominant and deadly to nervous, panicky and hopelessly vulnerable.

I say "somehow", but the Gunners' manager, players and fans alike seem to have largely ignored their own team's alarming frailities and attributed the amazing capitulation to a series of decisions made by the referee. Gunnerblog was at least prepared to concede Arsenal's failings, but still quipped: "now we know what Newcastle spent that £35m on: Phil Dowd". So, just to pander to them, let's have a full judicial review of the incidents.

ASBO tackle on Abou Diaby
Referee's decision: no free-kick. Make no mistake, it was an aggressive challenge, but the ball was won cleanly and his studs weren't showing and neither did he leap in with both feet. It was certainly less dangerous than Nigel de Jong's leg-breaking tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa, which was not punished during the game or on appeal. Verdict: correct.

Diaby grappling with ASBO and Kevin Nolan
Referee's decision: red card. The Arsenal midfielder lost the plot and can't have any complaints whatsoever about being dismissed. Verdict: correct.

Laurent Koscielny tackle on Best
Referee's decision: penalty. Perhaps not the most stonewall spot-kick you've ever seen, but it was a rash, clumsy challenge at best. Verdict: correct.

Nolan grappling with Wojciech Szczesny
Referee's decision: yellow card. Our skipper's desire to retrieve the ball after ASBO's penalty was understandable, as was his frustration with the Pole for clinging onto it, but to get him in a headlock - particularly in view of the fact that Diaby had recently been dismissed for much the same thing - was extremely foolish and he was very lucky to be let off with just a caution. Verdict: incorrect.

Koscielny challenge on Mike Williamson
Referee's decision: penalty. Very, very soft. If this was a foul, then there'd be a spot-kick every five minutes. Verdict: incorrect.

Van Persie "goal"
Referee's decision: disallowed. It was tight, but the Dutchman was offside. Verdict: correct.

So, of the six contentious decisions that the Gunners felt went against them, in only two instances do they have any cause for complaint. And it's worth remembering that we were also on the wrong end of a poor decision, Best having a goal disallowed despite being played well onside by Tomas Rosicky.

Shortly after that effort was ruled out, with the score at 1-4, Best did beat Szczesny through perseverance, and when ASBO's second penalty hit the back of the net we had seven minutes to draw level. As it turned out, we needed just four of them. When ASBO's free-kick was headed clear to the edge of the area, Tiote steadied himself and hit a peach of a left-foot volley right into the corner. An incontrovertibly brilliant goal, and some way to score your first for the club.

Incredibly, we could still have snatched all three points. Nile Ranger, who had terrified our ten-man opponents since replacing Lovenkrands, chested the ball into the path of Nolan, whose shot skimmed agonisingly wide of the post. Such was the manner of Arsenal's collapse and the strength of character we had displayed, a winner would probably have been merited.

Now that the dust has settled on a momentous afternoon at St James' Park, it's worth reflecting soberly on the fact that, despite the heroics and despite still clinging to a position in the top half of the table, we actually now find ourselves one point closer to the relegation zone than at the start of the weekend. Looking forwards, if we defend like we did in the first half, demotion is a distinct possibility - but if we perform with the same spirit as we did in the second, then safety is more than achievable.

As for Dowd, we're getting quite fond of him. His two previous fixtures featuring us this season were the unexpected League Cup win at Stamford Bridge and the thrashing of 5under1and...

Arsenal fans' views (most of which roughly translate as "WE WUZ ROBBED, PHIL DOWD IS A BAD MAN" and very few of which have the good grace to accept we destroyed them in the second half): A Cultured Left Foot, Another Arsenal Blog, Arseblog, Arsenal FC Blog, Arsenalinsider, East Lower, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog, The Gunning Hawk

Other reports: BBC, Guardian

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it possible to describe this game without mentioning "a game of two halves"?

As bad as we played in the first half (it was agonizingly hard to watch), I have a feeling all the hoopla over Rocky's departure had something to do with it. We seemed to be playing like a team that had the heart ripped out of them. I'm not sure if Pardew was the source of inspiration at halftime or maybe it was the player's pride that kicked in once they realized a abject they were playing.

I guess we'll never know

12:51 pm  
Blogger Michael said...

Are Arsenal fans the biggest set of whingers in the Premier League? It wasn't Dowd who bought two poor centre-backs in the summer. Wasn't Dowd who took off Walcott to shore up his defence with a player who barely touched the ball. Wasn't Dowd who reacted to a perfectly fair tackle by pushing a player to the ground. Wenger needs to look more closely at himself and the petulance of his team.

8:21 am  

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