- Written by Shane Thomas
Arsenal's recovery from Sunday's Carling Cup disappointment began apace as they comfortably brushed aside Leyton Orient in the FA Cup 5th Round replay at what was a pretty sterile Emirates Stadium last night.
Arsene Wenger gave a debut to 19 year old Conor Henderson while Nicklas Bendtner scored a hat-trick as the Gunners put five past the League 1 outfit to secure a quarter-final tie away to Manchester United on Saturday week.
After Marouane Chamakh broke his goal drought - stretching back to November - by turning in a Tomas Rosicky cross, it looked as if this would be one of those nights where the team's technical proficiency would be far too much for their lower league counterparts to handle (it's been a while since we've had one of those games).
And so it proved. Orient's Alex Revell missed a great opportunity after finding an entire postcode's worth of space in the penalty area. With the chance squandered, Arsenal continued to pass the ball around at their leisure. Bendtner scored his first after a fine header from a looping Kieran Gibbs cross, and added his second soon before half-time. Rosicky caught the Orient back-line dwelling on the ball, and with plenty still to do, Bendtner found the far corner of Jamie Jones's net.
Truth is, Arsenal never moved out of second gear in the first-half. They never needed to. And returning to the pitch, already 3-0 up, there was no need for the players to over-exert themselves. If the match was like a reserve game in the first-half, it resembled a pre-season contest in the second. With the result already secure, both Abou Diaby & Kieran Gibbs had the freedom to go on mazy dribbles into the box. While Diaby was predictably wasteful with his finish, Gibbs was brought down and Bendtner fired home the penalty. Goal number five was a collector's item from Gael Clichy, but he deserves credit for what was a good finish.
We shouldn't be too churlish about this result. After all, win's a win's and we still remain in with a chance of winning three competitions. But this was not the panacea that the club needed to shake them out of the malaise that is still apparent from Sunday. All yesterday did was prevent the misery from becoming even worse.
Bendtner has a habit of going on a scoring streak in the latter part of the season, and with Robin Van Persie sidelined for most of March, let's hope it's a habit that continues. There was also a good performance from Rosicky, who looked as lively as I've seen him this season. But even that raised the question, "where was that performance on Sunday?"
And therein lies the problem. As a club, the wounds from Wembley still haven't healed yet. Leyton Orient was a game that we were always going to win. The measure of Arsenal's recovery will be how the side perform in the next 10 days. Sunderland at home, and then Barcelona & Manchester United away. We won't be able to make a judgement on Arsenal's recovery until then.
Man Of The Match
Nicklas Bendtner - For someone who's considered something of an egomaniac, it should be pointed out that Bendtner has to often play in an unfamiliar wide-right position. And yet not once do we ever hear him complain about that. He's kicked up a fuss when he's been on the bench, but every player wants to contribute. When he pulls on an Arsenal shirt, his commitment is unquestionable, no matter where Wenger asks him to play. He took his goals with real aplomb, and Arsenal will need him to carry on this form in the business end of the season.
Almunia - 7, Eboue - 7, Squillaci - 6 Miquel - 6, Gibbs - 7, Denilson - 6, Diaby - 6 (Clichy - 7), Rosicky - 7 (Nasri - 7), Bendtner - 8 (Wilshere - 6), Chamakh - 6, Henderson - 6
- Written by Arsenal Latest
The pre-match hype had suggested that this game would finally signal the coming of age for Wenger's post-Invincibles side. The Carling Cup would be the first stepping-stone in Arsenal's bid for domination of the domestic and European landscape, and would serve as vindication of the manager's policy of buying young, and developing from within.
Sadly for the Gunners, neither side appeared to have read the script. Arsenal, who Wenger had stressed during the week were not lacking in leadership in the absence of their injured captain Fabregas, appeared overawed by the big stage. Birmingham, by contrast, rose to the occasion, reveling in the challenge of not only upsetting the favourites, but also of ending their own trophy drought, which stretched back to 1963.
Arsenal’s nervousness was clear right from the opening skirmishes. In a moment reminiscent of Arsenal’s last final appearance, when Jens Lehmann saw red early on, Szczesny was saved from being sent off and conceding a penalty by a poor decision from the linesman. Throughout the first half Arsenal’s passing game was nowhere near the standard we have come to expect of them, with the normally excellent Song particularly culpable. It was from a loose Sagna pass that Birmingham forced the corner from which Nikola Zigic put them 1-0 up, with Arsenal conforming to stereotype in displaying a vulnerability when defending set-pieces. Birmingham’s high-pressing game was maintained as the half progressed, and more Arsenal uncertainty created a chance for Zigic, who drew a good save from Szczesny. With Arsenal beginning to settle, Wilshere and Arshavin looked most likely to force an equalizer, and so it proved as great work from Arshavin set up Van Persie’s volleyed equalizer, after Wilshere had struck the bar from outside the box.
Having recovered from the shock of going behind, one might have expected Arsenal to settle and begin to turn the screw. The team’s continued anaemic display in the opening 15 minutes of the half suggested that they too believed that the natural order of things would be restored without much effort. Whilst Birmingham threatened little, Arsenal’s penetration was equally minimal, with Rosicky particularly wasteful in possession, and Nasri forced to come off his wing and go searching for the ball. Still the absent figure of Fabregas loomed large. Only when Wenger replaced Van Persie and Arshavin with Bendtner and Chamakh did things begin to open up for the Arsenal forwards, as Foster produced a series of fine saves from Nasri and Rosicky to keep the scores level. As ever with Arsenal, however, there remained that lingering feeling that the opposition is always in with a chance of scoring. Yet not even the most pessimistic of Gooners could have predicted the farcical manner of Birmingham’s winner, served on a plate to the substitute Martins by Koscielny and Scsezny. 2-1, and no time for Arsenal to come back.
Today’s game left not so much a feeling of anger as of emptiness and disappointment. Disappointment that the side’s detractors continue to be proved right in their assessment of our frailties; disappointment that a team so brimful of talent and determination still has no silverware to show for it, as well as concern that this defeat may prove fatal to our fragile confidence.
What’s more, the game provided us with a horrifying glimpse of a future without Cesc Fabregas, should Barcelona eventually get their man. Wilshere and Nasri have proven themselves to be midfielders of the highest calibre this season, yet neither performs the role of heartbeat of the side like our captain. In his absence, the team lacked that spark, that distinctive inventiveness and artistry that has come to define ‘the Arsenal way’. To those who regularly accuse Arsenal of lacking leaders, here too was both affirmation and refutation: Fabregas is our leader, as the wins against Chelsea and Barcelona demonstrated; the problem is that when he is missing there are few who can take his place.
Finally, we should not berate the manager too strongly. Though Birmingham managed to successfully unsettle Arsenal through their high-pressing game, the final was not lost on tactics, but on individual errors and a largely insipid team performance. Though old failings in the problem positions of goalkeeper and defence appeared to re-emerge, we should remember that Szczesny, Koscielny and Djourou have all enjoyed an excellent 2011. If Wenger sticks by his men and his philosophy, as he surely will do, and if the captain avoids further injury, this season could yet be a successful one for Arsenal. Barcelona and Man Utd remain there for the taking. Congratulations are due to Birmingham for what was, on the day, a deserved victory.
"The players are disappointed but we have to pick ourselves up, that's what a team is about. It's a good opportunity to show our mental strength, which I think is great.”
~ Arsene Wenger
“This team has great potential and there are still great targets to be played for this season.”
~ Cesc Fabregas
- Written by Shane Thomas
Arsenal moved to within a point of Manchester United at the top of the Premier League table after overcoming Stoke in a spiteful encounter at The Emirates. But the victory could come at a heavy cost for the Gunners.
Already having to start the match without Robin Van Persie and Laurent Koscielny due to injury, both Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott also left the pitch with ailments that are due to keep them out of not only the upcoming Carling Cup final, but a crucial chunk of games that could define Arsenal's season in the next few weeks.
These injuries meant that players such as Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Squillaci and Andrey Arshavin had key roles to play in the victory. Featuring mainly in cup competitions rather than league games had led many Gooners to dub these players as part of Arsenal's "B Team".
It was a night where many of the ostensible weaker links in Arsenal's chain came to the fore, which was just as well, as most of the side's better players like Samir Nasri and Johan Djourou were below par.
After a breakneck opening spell when Walcott had two chances to score - hitting the post with one, firing wide with another - Arsenal took the lead with Squillaci nodding in after Bendtner put a Jack Wilshere corner back into the six yard box. However, Fabregas then suffered a hamstring strain and he was soon replaced by Arshavin.
As Arsenal's captain went down the tunnel, so did the team's early momentum. Their passing in the final third constantly failed to function efficiently with Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic only needing to make a routine save from Arshavin until half-time. However, they did manage to carry out Arsene Wenger's pre-match instruction to keep hold of the ball to ward off Stoke's physical & aerial threat, and progressed to the interval without incident.
Stoke had been moribund in the first-half, and as expected, came out for the second period with a much increased sense of purpose. They pressed Arsenal from the front, making it difficult for the Gunners to get out of their half. With refereeing assistance from a seemingly myopic Peter Walton, Stoke carpet-bombed Arsenal's penalty area with set-pieces and Rory Delap's long throw-ins any chance they got. Ryan Shawcross - who got a predictable volley of abuse from the home fans whenever he touched the ball - almost equalised after his header was diverted wide by Djourou, Robert Huth headed over after Wojech Szczesny failed to punch clear a Delap throw-in and Jermaine Pennant rippled the side of the net with a free-kick in the final moments.
While Stoke's lively response was expected and deserves credit, what was also expected and deserves no credit was the darker side of their game. John Carew on Djourou, Marc Wilson on Arshavin, Dean Whitehead ploughing through both Bacary Sagna and the challenge that put Walcott out of the Carling Cup final, Stoke's tackles on occasion left a lot to be desired. It would be unfair not to mention a poor tackle by the otherwise excellent Gael Clichy on Pennant that brought a deserved yellow card.
In The Stands
Tensions had simmered between the two sets of fans throughout the first-half, but the more robust nature of the second-half turned the stands into a cesspit of hate. As well as the vicious bile directed at Shawcross, the Arsenal song sheet included, "F****** pikeys! Get a proper house!" and "We pay your benefits!". They then erupted when the Stoke fans responded to Walcott being stretchered off with catcalls and hoots of derision. The Emirates Stadium echoed with roughly 55,000 people bellowing to the away section, "You're scum, and you know you are!!"
Don't mistake this for thinking that the ground was a cauldron of noise. This was one of the quietest matches I have known at the stadium. It's sad that the only time the home support seemed to find their voice was when they engaged in name-calling with the Stoke fans. I have never been to a North London derby before but I doubt that the outright hate between Tottenham and Arsenal would surpass what I saw in N5 last night.
But regardless, Arsenal deserve a lot of credit for coming out of the game with all three points. According to pundits who rely on cliches rather than analysis, Stoke are the kind of opponents that Arsenal come unstuck against (despite their 100% home record against them). They have huge games coming up in the next few weeks - starting at Wembley on Sunday - and could have easily taken their eye off the ball. The fact that they managed to extract maximum points without playing anywhere near their best shows that this squad may have what it takes to push Manchester United to the limit in the title race.
And with their recent injuries, the whole squad could be needed as the assault on four trophies goes on.
Man Of The Match
Gael Clichy - Immaculate display from the full-back. Not only did he keep Jermaine Pennant in his pocket, which nullified one of Stoke's main attacking threats, but he was faultless in possession, as well as eradicating the losses of concentration that can sometimes blight his game.
Szczesny - 6, Sagna - 7, Squillaci - 7, Djourou - 6, CLICHY - 8, Song - 7, Fabregas - 7 (Arshavin - 7), Wilshere - 7, Walcott - 5 (Denilson - 6), Bendtner - 6, Nasri -
- Written by Shane Thomas
Arsenal’s cup struggles against lower league opposition continued as they conceded a late equaliser to Leyton Orient at the Matchroom Stadium. After looking relatively serene, especially in the second-half, Arsenal were stung by a stunning goal from substitute Jonathan Tehoue as the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Orient were happy to allow Arsenal to have the bulk of possession, while holding a deep line on the edge of their penalty area. They kept the Gunners at bay, mainly due to Andrey Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner looking to cut inside from their wide starting positions. This meant that Arsenal were very narrow, with the only width coming from their full-backs. But these moments were few and far between with Dean Cox keeping Bacary Sagna on a tight rein. On the other side, Kieran Gibbs seemed reluctant to attack. On the one occasion he did get forward, he set up the chance of the half for the ineffectual Marouane Chamakh, who scuffed his shot wide.
As expected, Arsenal continued to try and pass their way through the Orient rearguard in the second-half, finally breaking the deadlock after 53 minutes. Tomas Rosicky headed in his first goal in 43 matches, capitalising on some good work from Bendtner. With the game now following its expected script, Arsenal were content to keep possession and run down the clock. Rosicky forced Orient keeper Jamie Jones into action again in the half, as he made a fine save from point blank range to keep the home side in the tie.
The game’s key period occurred in the 86th minute. As the lively Arshavin raced into the penalty area, he was at a tight angle but left with no support, the Russian unleashed a fine effort that clipped the outside of the post. Initially it seemed academic but a minute later, Tehoue secured a lucrative replay for Orient after skipping away from both Gibbs and the hitherto impressive Ignasi Miquel and rifled his shot through Manuel Almunia’s legs to send the Brisbane Road fans into ecstasy.
In the midst of the headlines surrounding Orient’s day in the sun, it’s easily forgotten what a sterile game this was. Arsenal’s second string once again showed their inability to seize the initiative in games. However, there were good performances from Alex Song (the game’s star performer), Arshavin, Sagna and Miquel, who looked reasonably assured on his debut and may feature again in the future.
With West Ham moving in on Orient’s “patch”, and a replay on the way at The Emirates, Orient have been at the forefront of the minds of people who love an underdog story in football. But unlike Crawley Town on Saturday, Orient gave a pretty limp display. They worked hard when defending, but until Tehoue’s arrival, they offered next to nothing going forward, with manager Russell Slade admitting as much after the game.
For a side that has impressed in League 1 this season, and aspires to play progressive football, Orient were frankly insipid. Let this not come across as sour grapes as credit must be given for them taking their chance when it came along. While the result should be lauded, and will probably sustain the club for the next few years, the fact remains that it was nothing more than a smash and grab job. If they give a similar performance in the replay on Wednesday week, then the East Londoners could be on the wrong end of a hiding.
As for Arsenal, their marathon season continues apace. If the Gunners are to end their season with a trophy, they will definitely have earned it.
Almunia - 6, Sagna - 7, Squillaci - 6, Miquel - 7, Gibbs - 5, Denilson - 6, SONG - 7, Bendtner - 6, Rosicky - 6, Arshavin - 7, Chamakh - 4
- Written by Rob George
The clash of two irresistible forces did not fail to disappoint as the Catalan giants brought their flair and panache to the Emirates on Wednesday evening. But unlike many in Europe, Arsene Wenger vowed to fight fire with fire and promised to take Barca on on their own terms and not stifle their creative geniuses Messi, Xabi and Villa. It was something which looked like a rash promise at the end of the first half as Barcelona dominated the game – but by the end of 90 sensational minutes we were all left begging for more.
The stark truth is that Barcelona should have been out of sight at the interval thanks to a goal from David Villa and an effort from Messi which was wrongly ruled out for offside. A lot has been made of the Argentinian's struggles in England – he has not scored a goal in this country yet – but he should have broken his duck when he was adjudged offside despite being behind the ball when he was played in by Villa. Arsenal was indebted to kid keeper Wojciech Szczesny for a number of saves from Messi and Pedro. Arsenal were left clinging on to half chances but not playing badly – its just Barcelona were playing better.
But just after 8.45pm, referee Nicola Razzoli signalled the start of a second half which will be talked about for years to come. Like two prized fighters, these two giants of European football sized each other up with gentle jabs before Robin Van Persie delivered a knockdown in the 78th minute. There seemed no danger as he was played in close to the byline. What followed was majestic as RVP slammed a low shot inside the near post to embarrass Victor Valdes and give Arsenal a glimmer of hope in the Champions League version of El Classico.
But Barcelona hauled themselves off the canvas as pushed Arsenal back into a corner until a moment of magic in the 83rd minute which undid the Catalans and delivered one of the finest goals you will see at any football ground this year. Son of Barcelona, Cesc Fabregas caressed the ball into the path of Samir Nasri who hared down the right wing and teased the ball into the centre where it was met by Andrey Arshavin who put months of frustration and bad form into his right foot and smashed it home to give the Gunners a crucial advantage going into the second leg on March 8.
Only halfway there
The result doesn't make Arsenal kings of Europe and does not mean Gunners fans can book their quarter final tickets, it's simply half-time in a pulsating tie. What we learned is that the Wenger boys are now men and are not afraid to stand up and be counted – just as Chelsea was an important test which was passed with flying colours, now the Frenchman can point to this result as evidence of his side's continued development. The performance of Koscielny, Arshavin and especially Jack Wilshire shows that obvious talent is now being joined by steel and determination.
But anyone who follows world football knows Barcelona are deadly on any day of the week, a 1-0 win would hand them victory in the tie after all. Arsenal need to be careful that the elation of victory does not become over-confidence – remember last year when Messi wrecked havoc in a 4-1 demolition. And that's the thing, Arsenal need to think about their second leg, Pep Guardiola can simply say to his team 'more of the same lads'. They just need to take their chances because there can be no doubt Arsenal emerged on top last night because they took their chances clinically while for once the illustrious Catalan front line failed to fire.
Man of the match
Robin Van Persie staked a claim for man of the match once again, the Dutchman is red hot at the moment and a huge asset to the Gunners in their quest to land the Fab Four trophies. The reaction of Wilshire, Szczesny and RVP on Twitter suggests they were over-whelmed by the support from the Emirates faithful, avoid defeat in three weeks time and roar of adulation will only get louder.
Arsene Wenger said: “It was a special night between two special teams. The tie is still open.” - He wasn't wrong, all Gunners fans will be praying he lives up to the banner which simply reads 'Arsene Knows'.
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