Monday, December 30, 2013

Olivier twist seals close encounter

Newcastle Utd 0 - 1 Arsenal

A Frenchman on target at St James' Park - nothing new there. It was just unfortunate that said Frenchman wasn't wearing black and white, Olivier Giroud the matchwinner on a day when Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League but we matched them every step of the way.

We had the psychological fillip of going into the final match of 2013 off the back of having scored eight goals in two games (albeit against woeful opposition) and in the knowledge we were up against a side that has been faltering of late and was missing key men Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. The victories over Chelsea, Spurs and Man Utd mean we shouldn't fear anyone, even if Arsenal did promise to pose slightly different problems - primarily, getting hold of the ball...

His suspension served, Mr T was always likely to come straight back into the team. HBA was arguably our man of the match against Stoke, his darting runs on goal setting the tone for our attempts to go for the jugular in the second half, but found himself omitted to accommodate the returning midfielder. An unfortunate case of last in, first out - but, in truth, a sensible move on the Silver Fox's part as it would give the centre backs additional protection from the Gunners' dynamic midfield.

That midfield broadly controlled the first half, though Mr T and Mini V were usefully combative and chances for those in red and white were largely restricted to shots from distance from the likes of Santi Cazorla that barely troubled Tim Krul. Not that we were creating much more, our brightest moment coming when an overlapping Mathieu Debuchy was inches away from controlling a raking long-range pass from his mucker Dreamboat. Given all the praise Everton's full-backs have been getting of late for their contributions offensively, Debuchy deserves similar plaudits - but perhaps it's best we keep quiet about that and hope he continues to be able to advance unnoticed as our secret weapon.

Debuchy it was who came closest to breaking the deadlock just before the interval. Moussa Sissoko's searing drive was tipped over by Wojciech Szczesny but from the resulting corner the Polish 'keeper could only watch as Debuchy's far-post header looped onto the face of the bar and away via Jack Wilshere's brow.

The second period was just over 15 minutes old when the Silver Fox elected to replace Goofy with HBA. The former was no doubt as disappointed as we were that his impressive record of scoring in consecutive home matches had come to an end, but it was nevertheless a positive move from the manager - albeit one that was immediately followed by us falling behind. Mr T's soft foul gave Theo Walcott the opportunity to loft a free-kick into the area which Giroud glanced beyond Krul. Initially Mike Williamson looked to be at fault (something that might have harmed his chances of a trip to Brazil), but in truth he was left high and dry by his skipper, Sideshow Bob switching off at the vital moment.

Debuchy was then called upon to perform heroics to keep us in the game, athletically heading onto the bar and clear after Walcott's shot had been saved by Krul. It wasn't going to be our day, though, as was made apparent when Szczesny's sloppy clearance whacked off Loic Remy's mug but bounced wide, leaving the striker nursing a headache without the consolation of a goal.

Big Lad's introduction at the expense of Mini V was a clear signal of intent, but the decision to replace Sissoko with Massadio Haidara was more puzzling, seeing Davide Santon moved to the right side of midfield. Surely Debuchy would have been better in that role, with Santon switching full-back positions, or alternatively we could have thrown on a natural midfielder or forward in the form of Little Big Lad or Papiss Cisse?

As we applied late pressure to the Gunners' goal, Mathieu Flamini's challenge on his compatriot and namesake Debuchy could and perhaps should have seen us awarded a fourth penalty in three matches. Big Lad caused some consternation to Per Mertesacker and company, and HBA committed defenders with his pace and trickery but shot harmlessly wide on two occasions when passes were a better option.

On Match Of The Day 2, Wor Al charitably praised the Gunners for winning ugly - essentially a euphemism for playing badly but emerging undeservedly victorious. We may have once again failed to beat a side fast becoming one of our bogey teams, but this was a far cry from the 7-3 battering suffered at the Emirates exactly a year earlier and we shouldn't be disconsolate as there was plenty to give encouragement for the rest of the season - not least Arsene Wenger's post-match declaration that he won't be renewing his attempts to lure Dreamboat to the Emirates in the transfer window.

Arsenal fans' perspectives: A Cultured Left Foot, Arseblog, East Lower, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog

Other reports: BBC, Guardian (in which TBW does her best to start an HBA-to-Arsenal rumour)

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