Slowly but surely, Arsenal’s odds of winning the Premier League title are getting longer. The significance of the 4-0 thrashing by Manchester United in the FA Cup is not a “one-off” incident as Arsene Wenger described. With limited resources forcing his hand, Wenger sacrificed the FA Cup to focus on the Champions League, unfortunately, the loss signaled their decline.
To Arsenal’s credit, they did not cower or surrender to Aston Villa despite being forced to the edge of the cliff. Eking a 1-1 draw, they stayed unbeaten at home and preserved their lead at the top of the Premier League, but only just, as Manchester United had closed the gap to one point with a 3-0 crushing of Fulham.
In the 27th minute, Aston Villa pulled ahead, courtesy of an own goal. Gabriel Agbonlahor raced down the left flank, capitalized on some hesitant defending (several precious seconds lost as the Gunners waited for an offside decision), and sliced the ball across the box. Philippe Senderos, inexplicably, turned the shot into his own net.
I don’t know what Senderos was thinking. Was he attempting a clearance, to pass the ball to keeper Alumnia, or his foot was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? The fact that John Carew was lurking was no excuse for losing his composure.
Of late, uncharacteristic errors have crept into Arsenal’s game and cost them dearly. In the 2-2 draw to Birmingham last week, it was the same situation. Nevertheless, Senderos can be spared the brickbats as he recovered sufficiently to put in a steady performance for the rest of the match.
Arsenal responded positively after falling behind. They poured forward relentlessly and laid siege on Villa’s defense by bombarding Scott Carson with 16 shots. Villa survived the onslaught as Arsenal’s finishing left much to be desired. You can’t win if you don’t score, in this respect, the front line let the fans down terribly.
Unlike Manchester United’s wunderkid, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is still banging in the goals effortlessly, Cesc Fabregas has struggled to find the net after an injury early in the season. An impressive six goals in his first 11 league matches have now dried up to a pathetic one in the last 13.
For a player of his caliber, I actually expected more. If Alex Ferguson can throw down a challenge to Ronaldo to contribute 20 Premier League goals this season, I don’t see why Cesc Fabregas cannot aim to do likewise. This can help to lighten the team’s burden and also raise his stature to a world-class player. Pulling his weight in midfield as just another outstanding midfielder is not enough to distinguish himself at the major awards.
Emmanuel Adebayor, unstoppable several weeks ago, has also lost his killer touch. Zero goals in the last three matches, which coincided with Arsenal’s patchy form. Could it be his new haircut as he looks uncomfortable after sniping his corn rows? Theo Walcott did not extend his fine form after scoring a brace against Birmingham. Instead, he faded quickly into obscurity amidst the stubborn Villa defenders.
However, Arsenal’s efforts were rewarded four minutes into stoppage time with Bendtner’s close-range goal. Adebayor noddded a cross into his path and he swept it home with aplomb. The joy at Emirates Stadium was fantastic, as if they have won the title.
Certainly, it was a relief to Wenger that this volatile partnership is still effective, there were serious doubts if both players could stand being in the same team after the face-off in the 5-1 League Cup semi-final defeat to Tottenham.
I am sure this draw will be valuable to Arsenal as the title race enter its final stretch. Between now and the end of the season, if Arsenal and Manchester United win all their matches, a single point can make a world of difference. An undeniable fact is, destiny still lies in their own hands.
Wenger admits his team is going through a bad spell, saying, “We had a hangover from last week definitely. In the second-half we were a little bit better but lacked that spark. The reason we got a point today was the desire and the refusal to lose.”
Overall, I will say the performance was satisfactory, much of the pretty football was evident and they were able to create chances. If a full squad is available, I believe the tide will have turned in Arsenal’s favor much earlier.
Alumina was instrumental as he made several fine saves from Harewood and Young to keep Arsenal in the game. I was quite concerned that his stay in the haunted house has adverse effects, turns out the experience may have honed his reflexes and calmed his nerves in stressful matches.
To stop the slide, Wenger has to quickly imbue his forwards with confidence again, since he does not have much choices in dropping players. In this match, the bench is so thin, he can only turn to Bendtner to reverse the situation on the pitch. With ten matches left, Wenger may have to rush Robin van Persie back into action before it is too late. Tomas Rosicky’s return will also give Arsenal more options in midfield and attack.
Aston Villa was effective in adopting a counter-attack strategy by defending in numbers and then blazing down the flanks to exploit the gaps in Arsenal’s rearguard. They allowed Arsenal to achieve a 58% possession, happily passing the ball around, but when Villa made their forays, it was more threatening. Suffice to say, the best chances of the game fell to Villa. If AC Milan has spied on Arsenal in this match, they will know where to strike their opponent where it hurts.
Arsenal will rue the dominance and chances they wasted in the first leg of their Champions League encounter. Achieving a win at the San Siro will require an optimistic outlook, especially with the current slump in the strikers’ form. There is no room for profligacy when facing Italian teams, if you do not grab the couple of chances which come your way, the game is over.
It will be a massive confidence boost if Milan are eliminated and Arsenal may yet recover their momentum, but somehow, I am inclined to believe next season holds better promise.