Dec 272008

Aston Villa 2 (Barry pen 65, Knight 90) Arsenal 2 (Denilson 40, Diaby 49)

Given that we’re no longer in the title race, a fact confirmed by the top three’s victories yesterday, and given that no-one but Villa are putting in a realistic fight for our fourth spot, this match was huge. Now consider these two points:

1. Had we lost to Villa, we’d have been six points behind them and in big big trouble.

2. We should’ve been out of the game by half time.

Does it ever seem like I’m trying to convince myself as much as you? In all seriousness, a draw at Villa with a side so shorn of confidence is excellent. But in football, draws can feel like victories, and draws can feel like defeats. And when the opposition come back from 2-0 down to score so late on, the latter becomes the case.

But Villa, for all their celebrating the rescuing of a point, must look back ruefully at a chance missed just as much as us. Before we took the lead, Sidwell crashed a header against the bar, Milner hit the inside of the post, Davies looped another against the bar, and Gallas made a goal saving block.

Had as many of those gone in as they would ‘on another day’, the phrase we often use to bemoan an unfortunate result, we’d have been hammered by half time, and the media would be crucifying us this morning. Instead, we lost no ground to a side that completely outplayed us for large portions of the match.

It was Denilson who opened the scoring, harrying Reo-Coker into a mistake after making a rare gambling run forward, and his cool finish left us imagining a true smash and grab win. Moments later, Sagna pulled off a miraculous overhead kick clearance off the line to deny Agbonlahor an equaliser.

When Diaby instigated a marvellous goal at the start of the second half, you really did feel like the tables had turned and we would finally pull off that elusive lucky victory. His jinking run was delightful, and the one-two played with Eboue was perfectly timed, before Diaby lifted the finish over Friedel. His passionate celebration was also good to see, even though it got him booked. Van Persie should’ve made the game safe, but smacked the post.

But once again, we contrived to throw it away. Agbonlahor ran into the box, and despite not being in an especially dangerous position, Gallas lost his cool and attempted a sliding tackle that was never going to get him the ball. A stonewall penalty, and Gareth Barry doesn’t miss those. That left us with 25 minutes to close out a game, a task we have proved time and time again unable to do.

And so we did again. It took until injury time, but in some ways it was so inevitable, and serious questions have to be asked of a team that allows a four on three to develop when a couple of minutes away from securing a vital tight victory. The midfield completely failed to track back, the ball ricocheted to Zat Knight, who fired past an unsighted Almunia.

Plenty of players were culpable, but looking round the reports today I’m glad to see that it has been acknowledged Sagna wasn’t one of them. He was superb, but the rest of the back line, Almunia apart, were just not good enough.

Plenty has to happen in January, but I’ve deliberately not been getting into that until we’ve played our last match of 2008. That comes tomorrow, at home to Portsmouth, and with Villa not playing until Tuesday we can go above them with a win. That really needs to happen now.

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