In the build-up to yesterday’s game, I didn’t see that coming. When Johan Djourou turned into his own net after just half an hour, I really didn’t see that coming. When we went in at half-time trailing with Chelsea looking fairly comfortable, I really really didn’t see that coming.
I am really really really glad that it came.
At half-time yesterday, we were on course to be thirteen points adrift of Chelsea. In forty-five minutes, we halved that deficit to seven. A sixth Premiership defeat would have plunged our season even deeper into the icy waters of despair. As it is, a first league win away to a big four side in more than two years has seemingly offered us yet another reprieve.
As I suggested at the top of this piece, it didn’t always look as if it would turn out this way. Arsene sprang a surprise by dropping Mikael Silvestre in favour of the pacier Johan Djourou. Ahead of that, it was a 4-4-2 with Denilson tucking in from the right-hand side, and Alex Song in the holding role.
Although Robin van Persie and William Gallas both came close in the first-half, Chelsea were bossing it. We looked nervous at the back, and I for one was hoping to get to half-time at 0-0 – Manuel Almunia clearly had other ideas. The Spaniard collected a corner comfortably enough, but chose to throw the ball out when all ten of our outfield players were camped within our own penalty area. The ball was intercepted by the impressive Jose Bosingwa, who played a one-two with Anelka and ran through untracked by Nasri before whipping in a cross that Djourou turned into his own net with an outstretched right foot.
Between the goal and half-time, we didn’t seem particularly inclined to raise our game, and only an underhit pass from Frank Lampard and a couple of dodgy offside decisions (the linesman, it seems, was a Gooner) prevented Anelka and then Kalou from racing in on goal.
What we needed was a break – and in the second half, we got it. A long clearance was headed straight up in the air by Branislav Ivanovic, and Adebayor knocked it down for Nasri to find Denilson. The Brazilian took one touch before slipping the ball through to meet the spinning run of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman was, undoubtedly, offside. But the fact that his first touch didn’t take him forward but instead sideways meant that within a split-second, the retreating Bosingwa was level with Van Persie. This sufficiently confused the linesman to allow play to go on, and Robin duly smashed the ball into the top corner with his weaker right foot.
Yes, it was lucky, but it was a fantastic finish, and pleasing proof that what goes around sometimes comes around.
After the goal, we were transformed. I had been pleased with the work ethic and competetivite spirit we had shown throughout the game, but our lack of confidence meant we weren’t able to match that with our usual quality. It was all heart, no skill – the reverse of our usual problems. As soon as the goal went in, that changed. Players suddenly seemed to have more time on the ball; passes were being played with what I believe is technically described as “oomph”; Gael Clichy’s jet-pack was turned back on.
Confidence transmuted into elation just two minutes later when we went ahead. It was a breathtakingly simple goal: a Cesc free-kick, an Adebayor knock-down, and a first-time swivel and volley from Van Persie. Two minutes, two goals, 2-1. Not two shabby.
Now, more than ever, I was nervous. I prepared myself for the inevitable onslaught, as Chelsea threw kitchen sink, table, and fridge at our infamously fragile back-line.
But it never came. Perhaps it was the absence of Didier Drogba, perhaps it was the lack of options out wide, but Chelsea never really threatened. Everybody knows we’re defensively suspect, and yet we were never tested – in the entire ninety minutes, Chelsea mustered one shot on target, and even their goal was scored by one of our own players. Indeed, were it not for the cynicism of Invanovic and a poor touch by Denilson, we could have had one or two more on the break.
When the final whistle went, I almost couldn’t believe we’d gotten away with it. It was far, far too easy. But that’s Chelsea’s problem, not ours.
Games like yesterday remind me why, come the Gunnerblog End of Season Awards, I designate seperate categories for Best Result and Best Performance. Yesterday is unlikely to be up there in the latter category, but as far as results go this was massive.
That’s not to say there weren’t good displays in our ranks. Johan Djourou was powerful and assured at the back, and his presence drew an impressive performance from the maligned Gallas. It says much about our array of centre-halves that despite giving away a penalty and scoring an own goal in his past two games, the Swiss youngster looks the most solid option available.
Then there was Robin van Persie, who finally delivered in a big game. Arsene has shown a lot of patience with Robin through a seemingly endless string of injuries, and now it’s time for the Dutchman to start repaying that faith. His goals yesterday were indicative of how devastating he can be, and keeping him and Adebayor fit is critical to our season.
And what of our season? Well, I don’t subscribe to the view that this win puts up firmly back into the title race. What it hopefully gives us is belief, and as the title of this report implies, that is what is required to get our season back on track.
We have, however, been here before. The victory over Manchester United a few weeks back seemed like a turning point, but was just a false dawn. Gallas-gate and the appointment of Cesc as captain gave us another chance to turn the corner, and yesterday’s result will certainly help us on our way. But only by consolidating our form with some good performances in the forthcoming weeks can this result obtain the significance it deserves.
We need to use the confidence we earned yesterday to fuel us with enough momentum to reach January, when the reinforcements which still must arrive will reignite the embers of an Arsenal team that yesterday flickered into life once more.
We’ve been given another chance. We won’t get many more. This time, we have to grasp it.
*Denis Waitley, 1933