Due to other commitments I was unable to review Arsenal's trip to West Brom yesterday, but I have decided to run through my thoughts on the game today, as well as Arsenal's prospects for their remaining nine games this season.
Arsenal made the trip to West Brom on Saturday knowing a win was a must to keep the pressure on Premier League leaders "Manure". West Brom are struggling at the wrong end of the table, and their defensive record was pretty poor going into this game. They had managed to win the reverse fixture back in September in a game which saw what was probably Arsenal's worst performance in the league this season.
With injuries mounting Arsene Wenger didn't have an awful lot of options in his team selection. In my preview I had hoped Denilson wouldn't play as I just can't see what he brings to the team, but unfortunately the boss doesn't share that opinion with me. Due to the goalkeeping crisis Manuel Almunia was again Arsenal's first choice, and I'm never too happy when I see his name on the team sheet. Added to those two there was also the central defensive combination of Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci which just doesn't seem to work. Aaron Ramsey was included in the Arsenal starting like up for the first time in over a year, as his recovery from his leg break continued.
Arsenal had not conceded a goal in the first 15 minutes of any league game this season, but after only three minutes that statistic was altered. A corner was swung in from Arsenal's right hand side and Steven Reid rose to head the ball home unchallenged. It looked to me like Ramsey was the player who should have being marking him, but unfortunately he had let him go. After the trauma of exiting three competitions in two weeks it was exactly the start Arsenal didn't need. The question was whether the Arsenal players could respond to that early setback, and get the vital three points.
For the remainder of the first half Arsenal didn't really do enough to show how much the game should have meant to them. There were a few chances though and the best of them fell to Ramsey. Gael Clichy made a fine run and put an excellent cross into the box which Robin Van Persie headed against the bar with the keeper looking on helplessly. The rebound fell to Ramsey six yards from goal, but his attempt was saved by the keeper. He really should have scored, but I'm sure he still has a way to go before he's back to his very best.
At half time the boss decided it was time to make a change and he withdrew the ineffectual Denilson to be replaced by Marouane Chamakh. It meant Samir Nasri moved to a more central role, but still Arsenal didn't get their free flowing football going. With just 58 minutes gone the boss decide to replace Ramsey with Nicklas Bendtner, and quite what the formation was after that I'm not too sure.
It wasn't long before things got even worse for Arsenal due to the complete inability of Almunia to understand how to play as a goalkeeper. In the past I have always said he is a good shot stopper, but there's a lot more than shot stopping to good goalkeeping. If the official statistics for the game are to be believed then West Brom only had three attempts at goal in the whole game, and only two of those were on target. It's an indication of the defenders lack of faith in Almunia that both of those shots on target ended up in the back of the net.
After 58 minutes Squillaci was tussling for a long ball with Peter Odemwinige, and it didn't look like there was too much danger for Arsenal. However, Almunia then demonstrated why he is just not good enough to play for a team challenging for the Premier League by rushing from his goal to join in the tussle for the ball. It didn't seem to matter to him that the ball was well outside the penalty area, as he proceeded to push Squillaci to ensure Odemwinige got the chance to roll the ball into an empty net from outside the box. Koscielny had done his best to get back and cover his keeper when he saw him make his kamikaze run, but the ball beat him to the goal and Arsenal were 2-0 down.
Only Almunia can know what thoughts raced through his head as he decided to come for a ball he had absolutely no chance of getting, but the boss has to consider how much of a liability he is for the last nine games of the season. When the international break ends Wojciech Szczesny will be approximately three weeks away from returning from his finger injury, and those three weeks cannot pass quickly enough for me. The boss has to seriously consider playing 41 year old Jens Lehmann in goal in Arsenal's next two games against Blackburn and Blackpool or their chances might well be ended in those games.
After that goal West Brom sat back and Arsenal tried to throw everything they had at them, but seemed to be going nowhere. It took a moment of inspiration from Andrey Arshavin to get them back in the game, and that came in the 70th minute. He exchanged passes with Chamakh on the left edge of the West Brom box before taking a touch and absolutely burying the ball into the far corner of the net. Suddenly there seemed to be hope and arsenal went looking for an equaliser.
The equaliser arrived only seven minutes later, and Arshavin was the man behind the move yet again. He was under pressure from two defenders by the left hand corner of the pitch, but he somehow managed to get a cross in to the penalty area. Bendtner managed to get some part of his body to the ball beyond the far post and it went back into the six yard box. As Abdoulaye Meite tried to clear the ball it got stuck under his foot, and Robin Van Persie slid in to tackle him. He just about got his foot on the ball and it barely trickled over the line to put the sides level with enough time for Arsenal to take all three points still.
At that stage the "Manure" game against Bolton was still level and it looked as if a desperately disappointing day could turn out to be a joyful one after all. Try as they might Arsenal just could not manage the all important winner, but at least they had taken a point from what seemed like a hopeless position at one stage. Unfortunately "Manure" managed a winner in almost the last minute of their game as Jussi Jaaskelainen very generously handed them a lifeline. It means Arsenal are now five points behind the league leaders with a game in hand, and "Manure" still have to visit them in early May.
Unbelieveably Arsenal are still the masters of their own destiny in the league, as nine victories in those games will result in a league title for the first time in seven years. I don't for one second think they will win all nine of those games, but there are still a lot games to be played by all teams involved in the title chase. Those teams now have to include Chelsea who beat Man City on Sunday to close the gap to Arsenal to just four points. They have to travel to "Manure" yet this season and it all makes for a very interesting run in for all clubs concerned.
The battle to avoid relegation is so tight this season that no team can be taken for granted, as they are almost all fighting for Premier League survival. On the face of it Arsenal's next two opponents are teams they should easily dispose of, as both Blackburn and Blackpool are on very poor runs at the moment. However, both teams are scrapping for their survival, and both games will be very tense affairs. There is no more room for slip ups for Arsenal, and if they don't win those games I firmly believe the Premier League title will be beyond them this season.
Hopefully the return of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Theo Walcott after the international break will add the impetus which is so sorely missing from the team at the moment. I am also hoping the boss has finally decided Denilson is just not up to the task, and he will be left on the bench from here on in. He is the first player substituted in almost every game he starts, and against teams in the lower end of the table he has too little to offer in an attacking sense for me.
At least Arsenal found some goalscoring form again after only managing one goal in their last two Premier League games. With Almunia in the team they are always going to have to score at least two goals in a game to have any chance of winning in my opinion. I'm not trying to be too hard on Almunia, as it's not his fault Arsenal have to play him at the moment, but he's clearly not up to the task. He sticks to his line far too often, and then eventually decides to leave it when everybody else can clearly see it's the wrong time to do so. The boss is quoted as saying Lehmann needs "a bit of decision making practice", but surely practice will put that right for him, and nothing can put it right for Almunia. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed Lehmann gets that practice over the next two weeks before Arsenal play again.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights from Saturday's game.
See You Tomorrow.