Monday, May 7, 2012

"...Because He Dodges Bullets, Avi"

Perhaps Arsenal is no Boris the Blade, but they were incredibly lucky to still control their own destiny after the events of this past weekend. Because of the FA Cup final, Saturday morning was devoid of all Premier League matches except one: Arsenal vs Norwich City. On paper, this was a perfect game for Arsenal. It was their last home game of the season and against one of those few teams who had nothing in particular to play for. Sitting in 14th place with 43 points, Norwich was completely clear of the relegation zone. No combination of results over the last two games could possibly pull them into the bottom three, so they were not fighting for their lives. In addition, the Canaries were far enough removed from Europa League (the not-so-quick little brother of the Champions League that is all kinds of convoluted for several different reasons) places that there was no hope of qualifying for that illustrious tournament. In other words, they were a relatively rare case in the last two weeks of the EPL season: they were a team with nothing to play for. The case was simple. Arsenal would guarantee a spot in the Champions League if they won their last two matches. With Tottenham and Newcastle only one point behind them however, any slip up could drop them as far as 5th place, outside even the Champions League spot that comes with the requirement of a playoff series. Still, one would have good reason to be optimistic. The Gunners were playing at home against a team that had lost their last three games and didn't have a material reason to show up. Only effort, pride, and a love of winning were there to propel them forward. Unfortunately for Arsenal, that was enough.

The game started beautifully for Arsenal. In the second minute, Yossi Benayoun took a touch inside from his position on the left corner of the 18 and curled a perfect shot inside the back post, leaving Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy with absolutely no chance. Assisted by Kieran Gibbs' touchline run which drew the defender down for the split second Benayoun needed, this goal seemed to be the start of exactly what Arsenal needed. With the first goal going in so effortlessly, surely the Gunners would roll over a disinterested Norwich squad and spare the home fans any frayed nerves by enjoying a ho-hum 3-0 win. Except this was not the case at all. Norwich immediately stormed back into play and controlled the game for the rest of the first half, making Arsenal look ordinary on offense and at times laughable on defense. The flanks were the main danger areas as the Canaries consistently brought the ball as far as the endline before sending crosses into the middle for their target men and on one such play, Wesley Hoolahan got free and directed a shot on goal. This was one of the few cases where Wojiech Szczesny was not at his best as he struggled to get out of his own way, letting the ball go off of his leg and into the back of the net. Not only was Norwich now level, but controlling the match as well. It was only a matter of time until they went up 2-1, this time on an unlucky deflection as Grant Holt's shot hit Gibbs' foot and ballooned over Szczesny for the go-ahead goal. A piece of bad luck to be certain, but a goal that was deserved based on the run of play to that point. Going into the half, one had to wonder whether the Gunners would stay shell-shocked for the rest of the game, or get angry with themselves and come to play.

Fortunately for Arsenal fans, the second option proved to be the true one as the match swung entirely in the home side's favor for nearly all of the last 45 minutes. Arsenal were always the more likely team to score and after some frustrating near misses and excellent keeping by Ruddy, the Gunners broke through on the foot of their captain Robin Van Persie. First it was a volley off of an excellent Alex Song chip and then a clean up job on a loose ball in the box, which put Van Perise on 30 Premier League goals on the season, one away from tying the single season mark shared by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. The go ahead and seemingly match clinching goal was celebrated with the kind of joy and relief that only comes when your team has finally put right a terrible wrong, when they correct on the scoreboard what everyone knew should be happening on the field. The third Arsenal goal of the match felt like order was restored, like we were all back on script for the first time since the bit of Benayoun magic at the start. Like most good stories, however, there was another twist to come. Steve Morrison found himself free on the right hand side of Arsenal's penalty area and before Szczesny could close the angle or the late arriving defender could make a timely shot, he struck the ball perfectly across the face of goal and inside the far post. In Emirates, there was the confused silence of "this is not what is supposed to happen." The right was wronged again and after a tense five minutes plus injury time, Arsenal had drawn with Norwich City, leaving two points and command of third place on the table.

Perhaps the most agonizing part of all of this was that, as I said, Arsenal vs Norwich was the only game on Saturday. The bulk of the week's matches, including those involving Newcastle and Tottenham, were played on Sunday morning, meaning that Arsenal fans were forced to endure over 24 hours before discovering if their team's mistake would be exploited. Miraculously, it wasn't. Newcastle lost a very tough match to a better Manchester City team and Tottenham were inexplicably held to a draw by an Aston Villa team who would be relegated on form, but survived barely above the danger zone thanks to points accumulated earlier in the year. Arsenal were still safe, still somehow in control of their own destiny going into the final week of the season. A win away at West Bromwich Albion continues to mean a guaranteed spot in the Champions League next year and all of a sudden would transform a normal Sunday into a glorious St. Totteringham's Day. After Saturday morning's match, who would have thought it? Arsenal clearly dodged a bullet.

Game Notes

-The biggest loss on Saturday was not the loss of points, but the loss of Bacary Sagna with a broken fibula, the same part of his leg he broke earlier in the season. Not only does this knock him out of a spot on the France national team in Euro 2012, but it puts Sagna's future in doubt as well. Sagna came back from this injury once already and has vowed to come back even stronger this time, but for a right back that relies on pace and constant Cherundoloing (listen to Men in Blazers already, dammit) this is a tough break to take. Sagna will assuredly be missed during next Sunday's match versus West Brom, but the more important thing is for him to come back healthy and fit for next season. Good luck to you Bacary. We think the world of you.

-Alex Song has struck again and it couldn't have come at a better time. Though the match ended in a 3-3 draw, Song made yet another smart, instinctive chip over the defense to free Robin Van Persie for a goal. At times the Cameroonian holding middie can be frustrating due to his desire to always make the perfect, pretty pass, which leads to him being dispossessed in his own end more than an Arsenal fan would like. But with ten assists on the season (tied with Van Persie for the team lead), it's hard to argue that his passing instincts should be blunted. Song has had perhaps his best year for Arsenal providing them with stability in the middle of the field as well as the occasional bit of brilliance. Though at times I may wish for a more traditional steel plated holding middie who shuts down attacks before they start, I can't say I don't like watching him. Now all he needs to do is keep it together for one more match.

-Arsenal clearly miss the injured members of their team, but it was especially clear during the first half of this match. Mikel Arteta certainly wouldn't have ceded control of midfield to Norwich so easily and probably could have kept possession of the ball and kept Arsenal in the game if not on the front foot. Theo Walcott would have gotten up and down the flanks more easily than Gervinho, who seemed to oscillate between being completely invisible off the ball and completely ineffectual on the ball. And that's not even getting into the longer standing members of the injury club like Jack Wilshere and Per Mertesacker. This has been a tough year for Arsenal injury-wise but thankfully it will be all over after next Sunday. It is just the hope that the dreams of Champions League in 2012-2013 won't be over as well. If Arsenal can hold on, they will go into next season healthier and already up the addition of Lukas Podolski. Reasons for optimism for sure. As Always, Go Gunners.

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