Sunday, March 2, 2008

Arsenal 1 - Aston Villa 1 (Bendtner 90')

A tough one to swallow

A scrappy point - and a most unlikely one by the looks of the events as they unfolded at the Emirates yesterday. And come mid-May, it won't be any surprise that the points won or lost in injury-time drama will make the difference between winning the title and coming in second. Remember the Gallas equalizer against United at the Emirates? The Tevez equalizer at White Hart Lane a couple of weeks ago?

The big question (and one whose answer I would like to think Wenger knows) is whether this was the hangover after the very traumatic past week or a sign of the decline that so many have been predicting - some, it must be said, with gleeful anticipation. While the Villa game did not answer this quandary, the game at San Siro on Tuesday easily could.

Although the game yielded one massive positive (we are still in first place, albeit by the thinnest of margins) the negatives of our carelessly poor link play and even poorer defensive work are far more glaring. Martin O'Neill (the most underrated managers in the EPL by far) devised a tactical masterpiece for neutralizing our free-flowing passing play through suffocatingly tight coverage. His team executed it extremely well - and we were not able to cope. Meanwhile, when on the counterattack, their speed and directness of play instilled panic in a defensive line of fast-diminishing confidence.

Here are the ratings:

Almunia - 8. By far the best performer in the team, he made a couple of absolutely critical saves and displayed the calm and composure that we have come to expect from him.
Sagna - 6. His incursions in support in the right midfield channel were somewhat effective in the first 30 minutes, but with Agbonlahor making himself quite the nuisance on the counterattack, they had to be kept at a minimum.
Gallas - 5. His influence on the back four seems to be fading fast. A very nervy display that was quickly mirrored by the entire defensive line.
Senderos - 6. Not as bad of a game as the score sheet would make you think. A few minutes before scoring in his own goal he could have done the same at the other end of the pitch.
Clichy - 4. The poorest display of the season for Clichy (the only player who is somewhat justified to still be hung over after the Birmingham City game - and the one who showed it) The trouble is, as long as his backup is Traore, he must get back in shape.
Hleb - 5. Unable to generate anything remotely creative. Double- and triple-covered as soon as he received the ball, he was unable to escape the pressure. Wide right or behind Adebayor, his contribution was minimal.
Fabregas - 5. Just like Hleb, unable to cope with the suffocating pressure from a very mobile Villa midfield. Moreover, there are no signs that his goal drought is anywhere near its end, and the lack of composure in front of the goal is very troubling. He should have easily converted the clear opportunity he had at the end of the first half - he scored from infinitely more difficult circumstances.
Diaby - 5. (Bendtner - 7) While the slickness of his dribbling was once again second to none, his speed and overall work rate were less than stellar - the lack of match fitness being partly the culprit. He never threatened the Villa back four and he rarely contributed creatively.
Walcott - 6. It is becoming increasingly clear that Theo Walcott's most potent threat is his speed - and that one of his most glaring weaknesses is his crossing ability (except for the one at the end of injury time in the Milan game) He looked overwhelmed by the opportunity to start alongside Adebayor, and their partnership never "clicked". Easily perturbed under pressure, was unable to find the right channels to run into (not that our midfield would have necessarily been able to find him, mind you)
Adebayor 6. Largely anonymous, worked hard but did not have much to show for it - the assist to Bendtner was absolutely perfect, and he should rightly receive credit for it. So there.

Next up, Milan - and at San Siro no less. Toure should be back, and so should Eboue (such is the state of our team, I am looking forward to Eboue's return...) And Robin van Persie should be available off the bench.

...I feel strangely optimistic about this one - although last time I wrote this sentence, it was in the preview of the second leg of the Carling Cup semifinal at White Hart Lane.

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