Blackburn 1 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Walcott ’20
1 – 1 Mama Diouf ’27
1 – 2 Arshavin ’51
Arsenal’s sophisticated finishing gave them a cutting edge at a rain swept Ewood Park on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps more significant though was that the team out-fought, as well as out-classed a side supposed by many to intimidate Arsenal with their physical approach.
Particularly heartening was the resilience displayed in withstanding as thorough an aerial examination as Arsenal are likely to receive all season.
Talk of Allardyce holding a hex over Arsenal is hokum (an enchantment? A magic charm? Charm and enchantment are words not easily attributed to the vast man from Dudley); but the capitulation of last season’s walking wounded is fresh enough a memory to make Ewood Park a worrisome ground for us to visit.
Fat Sam’s direct, ‘no-nonsense’ football has proven very effective here – if unpopular (it’s a gruelling spectacle and the home fans were duly booing their own team when their limited scraps of possession were recycled yet again for Paul Robinson to thud up into the murky heavens). But effective it unarguably is. None of the ‘big 4’ managed to win here last season.
Arsenal pulled into town then, with it all to prove; and one amongst the squad had more to prove than most.
If Arsenal are Muhammed Ali (which in any good boxing analogy, we are… obviously) then for the newspapers, Manuel Almunia is the weakness in Ali’s guard, his inability to parry a well-aimed jab. (Sam Allardyce being Sam Allardyce, I’m tempted to extend that metaphor and compare Blackburn Rovers to George Foreman but that, of course, would be an unfair slight on Foreman). Pre-match commentators would have us believe that this game was as much about Almunia vs. Almunia as it was about Blackburn vs. Arsenal. Could the luckless, sleepy-looking Spaniard hold himself together under such a hostile bombardment – up North, no less? Few seemed to think so as Chris Foy stood in the rain and blew his whistle.
It quickly became apparent that perpetually irritating midfielder Morten Gamst Pederson had taken a leaf out of another exasperating footballer’s book and now had his very own team of unhappy looking little towel-bearers trudging up and down the touchline for him. And so it came to pass that a crowd of over 25,000 football fans were treated to four whole minutes of a Norwegian man drying a football with a towel.
Nevertheless, by hook or by crook, so came the barrage. And the Arsenal defence held true; and in goal Almunia was magnificent. He rose above Christopher Samba – the totemic captain of the lump-it lads – time and again, and the confidence and composure with which he did so warmed the very heart. He was vocal, brave and well-positioned throughout. For Arsenal fans, this truly was a sight for sore eyes.
Before too long and without ever really looking rattled Arsenal were able to get the ball down and start to impose themselves. Abou Diaby was very unlucky not to score from a corner and Theo Walcott had the ball in the net from a cool, chipped finish – only for it to be chalked off for offside.
In the 20th minute Walcott was troubling the scorers again and this time there was nothing anybody could do to deny him. A fine passing move came to a head with Arshavin somehow buying a half a foot to get his hard pass away to Robin Van Persie who brought the ball under his control with a wonderful touch and – spotting the run of Walcott – sent him through on the turn with a lovely weighted pass with the outside of his left boot – bisecting Givet and Grella. Walcott collected with a single touch and let fly instantly with a low shot that zipped past Paul Robinson and hit the inside of the net at the base of the post so hard it ripped the netting. Fabio Capello sat bolt up right, startled in the stands.
Six minutes later and out of the blue it was Rovers who scored next. Christopher Samba was afforded far too much time to pick his pass and knock a ball over the top of Arsenal’s exposed right flank. The rest was a case of Diouf, the whole Diouf and nothing but Diouf (sorry). With Sagna stranded up-field and committed it was a straight, shoulder-to-shoulder race between Koscielny and the roundly disliked little journeyman El Hadj. Koscielny made his move, but his attempt to nick the ball away was easily rebutted and his missed tackle gave Diouf the extra yard he needed to power through to the touchline and pick out his namesake, Man Utd loanee Mame Biriam Diouf – who tucked away the leveller in front of Gael Clichy. All far too easy, and there was more bad news on the way.
Robin Van Persie, clattered twice from behind by Phil Jones, was down on his haunches with a suspected twisted ankle after half an hour. Thankfully it wasn’t ‘that ankle’ and the initial prognosis is just ten days out. Marouane Chamakh replaced him on the day.
Arsenal came out much the stronger side in the second half and soon retook the lead. The goal was made by Bacary Sagna knocking the ball down the line just as he did last Saturday. He sprinted into the space, looked up and delivered another perfect cut-back – this time it was tailor made for his skipper. Fabregas’ shot hit Walcott and fell to Arshavin who picked the path to goal between the legs of several flailing Blackburn defenders with a well placed shot. The little Russian magician’s finger went up to his lips in familiar fashion and the away end, as well as thousands upon thousands of Arsenal fans worldwide, all went bananas.
With moments of magic and moments of malaise about Arsenal’s attack, they were always going to need some steel reinforcement at the back, but for the most part their excellent passing and movement allowed them to control the game at a comfortable pace. It is worth noting that it was a well refereed and fairly contested game with the first and only yellow card coming in the 74th minute – although there could easily have been another for the Original Diouf when he threw himself down on his belly like a fish in the hull of boat in an attempt to win a penalty in the closing minutes.
If the papers spent the week painting Ewood Park as a battlefield and the Lancashire outfit as a team of barbarians, then the fact that they have been left vanquished on their own barricade must surely be a psychological fillip for Arsenal; it is at very least an awkward hurdle happily cleared.
The North Londoners, written-off by so many before the league has even broken stride yet, and too often seen as a soft touch in fixtures like this, grafted out a performance which announced to the fans, and to the rest of the country, that this team has the defensive resolve as well as the audacious attacking talent to be genuine title contenders once again this season.
Enjoy the Bank Holiday!