It's hard to know where to start after last night's match between Arsenal and The Spuds. It was a game both teams had to win for different reasons, and both teams certainly did all they could to get the three points. A draw was probably a fair result in the end, but it has left Arsenal as good as dead in the quest to win their first Premier League title in seven years.
Arsene Wenger kept faith with Abu Diaby in the starting eleven, which meant Jack Wilshere dropped to the bench, as Alex Song was fit enough to make the starting team. Bacary Sagna also returned at right back, and Emmanuel Eboue made room for him, with the Ivorian not even making the squad of 18 for the game. It was very close to Arsenal's strongest possible team, and the players needed to show the fans how much this game meant to them, after some lacklustre performances recently.
The only real hope Arsenal had of winning the league was for them to win their remaining six games, and rely on "Manure" slipping up against both them and Chelsea. The Spuds had a good home record, as they had only lost at home once all season, but there were a lot of draws along with their victories. The stage was set for a tense night, with the game meaning so much to both teams in terms of their league position, and to their fans in terms of local bragging rights. Earlier in the season The Spuds had come from two goals down to win 3-2 at The Emirates, and Arsenal fans wanted some payback from their team for that result.
From the very start both teams went for the victory, and it was Arsenal who made the early breakthrough. Diaby won the ball in midfield in the fifth minute and he played it to Song, who passed it immediately to Cesc Fabregas. Cesc took a couple of touches, and played a ball on the ground between the Spuds centre backs for Theo Walcott to run through on goal from the left hand side. He took the ball on his right foot, and finished into the right hand corner, as the goalkeeper advanced. It reminded me of a typical Thierry Henry goal, and it was just the start Arsenal needed.
Arsenal's lead didn't last very long though, as only two minutes later Rafael Van Der Vaart was played through by Vedran Corluka, and he finished excellently at Wojciech Szczesny's near post to draw The Spuds level. There was very little Szczesny could do, despite being beaten at his near post. Both teams continued to attack at every opportunity, and for the neutral observer it must have been a great game to watch.
It wasn't long before Arsenal took the lead again, and this time it was Samir Nasri who did the damage. He exchanged passes with Diaby outside The Spuds box, and he then rifled a 25 yard effort into the corner of the net, past the efforts of the keeper and two defenders to stop it. Arsenal had managed to score the fabled goal from outside the box, and things were looking good for them again.
This time Arsenal managed to defend a little better, and they didn't concede an equaliser right away. In fact just before the half hour mark Walcott had an ideal opportunity to add to their lead, when he was played through by Robin Van Persie. This time he approached the goal from the right hand side, and his shot narrowly went wide of the far post. I'm convinced he would have scored, if he had come in from the other side, and I really think he should be played on the left side of Arsenal's attacking three more often. Last night he played like a second striker for Arsenal at times, as RVP dropped back, and his pace caused The Spuds some real problems.
Shortly after that incident Szczesny made a very good save to deny Luka Modric, as both teams continued to attack each other at will. With 40 minutes on the clock Arsenal increased their lead, and RVP was the scorer this time. Sagna delivered a cross from the right, and William Gallas appeared to try to chest it down for the keeper. He only managed to knock it to Walcott, and he hung up a beautiful cross which RVP headed goalwards from four yards out. Heurelho Gomes made an excellent save, but the ball fell to RVP again, and he made no mistake from two yards with his left foot. It was looking good for Arsenal, but they had to try to keep things tight until half time.
Shortly after that Szczesny showed exactly why he is the future goalkeeper at Arsenal for years to come. A ball was played through for the ineffectual Gareth Bale to chase, and Szczesny came hurtling out of his goal to get a hand to it before Bale could make contact. Bale careered into him, and knocked Szczesny backwards, but the young Pole got up as if nothing had happened at all. However, Bale was left crumpled on the ground, and as Szczesny walked back to the Arsenal goal he clearly told Johan Djourou he was alright, before he winked at him. He was obviously happy to have won both the ball and the physical battle, and it showed he has the courage needed to play in goal at this level. I actually though Bale could have got a yellow card, as he made no contact with the ball, and clearly caught the keeper instead.
When the game restarted The Spuds pulled a goal back almost immediately through Tom Huddlestone. A very high ball was played towards Peter Crouch at the back of the Arsenal box, and he headed the ball back across the goal. Cesc managed to clear it, but it came to Huddlestone 25 yards out. He hit it first time, and the ball bounced into the ground before going through Van Der Vaart's legs, and into the Arsenal net. The execution of the shot buy Huddlestone was absolutely excellent, and yet again Arsenal had conceded a wonder goal to The Spuds. Huddlestone has the ability to score goals like that, but he usually only manages it once a season.
It was a blow to Arsenal's chances of winning the game, as a two goal half time lead would have been far more preferable than a one goal lead. There was still time for Djourou to step across Modric in the Arsenal box, and The Spuds were convinced it should have been a penalty. Half time came, and it was still 3-2 to Arsenal, but the game looked to have a lot more goals in it. At half time Bale was replaced by Aaron Lennon, as he failed to recover from his collision with Szczesny.
Both Song and Diaby were shown yellow cards very early in the second half, as The Spuds pushed further up the field, and Arsenal had to do a lot of defending. Szczesny was again called upon to make a fine save from Van Der Vaart although he looked to be clearly offside to me. Arsenal were struggling to string passes together, as The Spuds kept pressing them. I thought it was only a matter of time before they tired, and I hoped Arsenal could take advantage of them when they did. In the 52nd minute Jack Wilshere replaced Diaby, as Arsenal looked to gain control in midfield again.
Arsenal slowly started to turn things around, and RVP had a goal disallowed in the 57th minute, despite looking onside to me. It was difficult to tell for sure, as a pylon in the stand blocked the view from the TV replays, but the line on the grass pointed to him being level with the last defender which is onside. Only six minutes later Walcott made another break behind The Spuds defence, but he couldn't make up his mind what to do, and the chance was lost.
In the 70th minute Sagna was caught flat footed, and Benoit Assou-Ekotto played a ball behind him for Lennon to run on to. Szczesny came off his line, but Lennon was too quick for him and he clipped Lennon just after he had nicked the ball away from him. There were calls for a red card, but Lennon had actually knocked the ball wide in his desire to make sure he got there first, and it certainly wasn't a clear goalscoring chance. If Szczesny had stayed on his line The Spuds would have had a fantastic chance to score the equaliser, but they now had an even better one. Van Der Vaart stepped up to score his second goal of the night, and the teams were level again.
In the final 20 minutes chances came and went for both teams, and both goalkeepers made excellent saves to keep their teams in the game. Szczesny did very well to keep out efforts from Modric, Crouch and Raniere Sandro, and it was obvious that his mistake for the penalty had not affected his game. Cesc did his best to score the winning goal for Arsenal, but it wasn't to be for him. Both Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner came on for Nasri and Walcott in the last 10 minutes, but they had little impact on the game.
There were plenty of positives to take from the game for Arsenal, as the players at last put in a performance for the fans to be proud of. They played with passion commitment and pace, and all of those elements have been missing from Arsenal's game for quite a while now. They managed to stop The Spuds doing the double over them at least, and Cesc was back to his very best at last. He had an excellent game, and he deserved a goal for his efforts in my opinion.
There were negatives too of course, as Arsenal's title challenge finally ended in my opinion. Even if Arsenal win their final five games I think their goal difference won't be enough to finish ahead of both "Manure" and Chelsea who are ahead of Arsenal now after last night's results. Arsenal have some very tough games, and they will need to start winning by three or four goals in each of those games if they are to have any chance. It's a task I just can't see them completing, even if they play as well offensively as they did last night.
Arsenal were found wanting at times defensively last night, as Modric and Van Der Vaart found far too much space in front of their defence. Players of their calibre cannot be given time and space on the ball, or they will hurt the opposition, which is exactly what happened last night. If Almunia had given that goal away last night he would have been taken apart by the Arsenal fans, but Szczesny showed he has so much more to his game that his one mistake was forgivable in my opinion.
I wanted the Arsenal players to show how much the game meant to them last night, and they did exactly that. They weren't afraid to play good football for the first time in ages, and despite not winning I think Arsenal fans can be proud of their efforts today. It's better for them to go down fighting hard and playing football, rather than looking like they are going through the motions, as has been the case recently. If they can show that much effort and commitment in the last five games I think they will come very close to winning the league, but it looks to be beyond them now.
Their recent unbeaten run of 16 league games looks impressive on paper, but the eight draws in those 16 games are what have cost them dearly. When Arsenal had lost five of their first 17 league games I said they were still in the title race because they had only drawn two games at that stage, but now they can't seem to win a game. Five draws in their last six games is a millstone around the necks in terms of challenging for the league, and it looks to have finally dragged them under last night.
I'm looking forward to Arsenal's last five games of the season, and hoping for five wonderful attacking displays littered with great goals, as they show they still believe in themselves and their chances of winning the league. I really hope they can beat "Manure" next week, and prolong the chase for another week or two at least. If they can win those five games it will get the majority of fans back onside,and hopefully the surgery the squad needs will take place this summer, and next season can belong to Arsenal.
At the moment Everton are the most in form team in the Premier League, and I'll be hoping for them to get some sort of result away to "Manure" in Saturday's early game, but it's only a very slight hope. If "Manure" win the league it will be on the back of their home form, as they have not won away to any team in the top half of the table, or won consecutive away league games all season. If they do slip up I think Chelsea are far better poised to take advantage of it than Arsenal are, and it could make for a very interesting end to the season.
That's it for today.
Here's the highlights of last night's game.
See You Tomorrow.