Arsenal 2 (Denilson 5, Fabregas pen 83) West Ham 0
For long periods of the first half, this game looked to be a stroll in the park. Ahead after only five minutes, Denilson exchanging passes with Bendtner before finishing impressively, we were cutting West Ham apart at will – only the final ball or finishing touch was preventing it becoming an memorable hammering.
And then in one instant, the game changed entirely. A long ball over the top saw Franco and Vermaelen chase for the ball, the Belgian tried to haul the striker back, missed, but Franco threw himself to the ground theatrically anyway. Martin Atkinson was on the half way line, but the linesman flagged for the penalty, indicating it was also worthy of a red card.
Where to start with that decision? Well, firstly, they bumped shoulders outside the box, so the resultant penalty was incorrect. Second, it wasn’t a foul, and third, Franco was never in control of the ball, so the red card was an awful decision.
I don’t actually blame Atkinson for the mistakes – he was miles away and reliant on his assistants. But as a team, they completely screwed it up to the point where even the anti-Arsenal ESPN brigade were calling it ‘harsh’. Harsh is certainly one word, but I’d go with another. Wrong.
We were shaken, and had the penalty gone in, we would have been level at the break, knowing that pressing forward with ten men would have been dangerous in the second half. But the much maligned Almunia came to our rescue with a stunning save – there was little wrong with Diamanti’s penalty, but the Spaniard clawed it away from the corner and our now slender-looking lead was preserved.
The second half, without wishing to resort to clichés, felt like a coming of age. Despite a numerical disadvantage, we controlled the match comfortably, West Ham having just one decent effort – Carlton Cole hitting the outside of the post although Almunia looked to have it covered.
In the end, we put the game to bed with another penalty, awarded for a blatant handball by Upson, who was very lucky to stay on the field having already been booked. No matter – Cesc buried the chance, and the points were secure.
For the second week running we’ve suffered at the hands of the referee and come away with the points regardless. Anyone who still believes that the major decisions go the way of the big clubs should analyse our penalty history this season. Time and time again we’ve been denied stonewall kicks, with the Eduardo embargo only recently lifted, while Hull have been gifted two of the softest penalties you’ll ever see. And that was before today.
So to come out the other side triumphant backs up what Wenger has long said about this group – they have character, and mental strength. It would have been easy to drop points last week and this, but we’ve kept on winning and we now sit proudly on top of the league. The pressure is on United and Chelsea, and the chances of both leapfrogging us tomorrow are slim given their tough fixtures.
As for personal performances, it really was the day for the previously lambasted to step up and show us we were wrong to ever doubt them. Bendtner held the line well, and his touch for Denilson’s goal was perfect. Eboue was menacing all day, and his direct style of running causes nightmares to opposing defences.
Almunia pulled off that vital penalty save, without which we would have been up against it, Diaby came on as a substitute and impressed, and Denilson was superb in the engine room, adding another goal from outside the box.
But the man of the match was the returning Alex Song, whose importance to the team cannot be overstated. Immense in the first half, he was an impregnable barrier yet also creative in our slick passing maneuvers. In the second, he was forced back into defence, yet slotted in as if he had played there all his life. In one notable incident, he made a terrific sliding tackle on the edge of the box with West Ham threatening, but in reality, the only reason the move had got to that point was that he was missing from the midfield. It is staggering how far he has come.
Having successfully overcome Song’s two match ban, and Vermaelen’s red card today (two of the three most important players in the squad, along with Cesc), we have to get negotiate a tricky trip to Birmingham next weekend with a backline missing our Belgian brick wall. Silvestre is likely to get the nod, with Wenger indicating that Campbell needs a rest:
“Sol Campbell was outstanding but to repeat the games could become a problem for him so I think I have to give him a big holiday next week to recover”
With Barcelona to come in the days after the Birmingham game, that break may last ten days. That would mean Silvestre and Song in central defence, with Denilson reprising today’s second half role, where in fairness he excelled.
But that is for another week. There is only one thing we should be looking at right now, and here it is:
Looks good, doesn’t it? Enjoy your Sunday.