22 April 2006

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

A disappointing draw for the Gunners. Arsene Wenger clearly gambled with the starting lineup. Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Freddie Ljungberg, and Emmanuel Eboue were all rested for Tuesday's match. Instead, he brought on Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby, Jose Antonio Reyes, and Johann Djourou, and you have to say that only Reyes was an even swap in that equation.

The first half was rather tense. Arsenal had a few good chances but so did Tottenham and they certainly held the bulk of the posession. The Gunners looked just a bit unorganized, particularly in the center of the park, and Tottenham were able to pick their chances at will. Fortunately the defense was solid and limited most chances. There were a few scary moments, most notably an amazing late-half run by Michael Carrick, winding his way through much of the defense, only to take himself too wide and fire into the side netting. The half ended 0-0 but with a bad case of nerves for the Arsenal supporters.

The second half saw some better play from the Gunners but still the posession favored Spurs. Unfortunately, Phillip Senderos went down with a knee injury and Eboue subbed in for him. Van Persie had a golden chance, beating the trap and taking on Paul Robinson one-on-one, but Robinson did just enough and van Persie too little, and the ball went wide. That was van Persie's final chance, as Wenger threw the dice and brought in Henry and Fabregas, replacing van Persie and Diaby. Yet it was shortly thereafter that the Spurs pressure told, albeit in controversial fashion. A three-way midfield collision left Eboue and Gilberto injured on the turf, yet Spurs pressed ahead, and their break found the back short of players; Edgar Davids sent in a cross that found Robbie Keane who easily knocked it home.

Make no mistake, it was an unsportsmanlike play and Spurs should be ashamed. They've attempted to make excuses that the injury wasn't their fault, but that's irrelevant. If the other team has players down, you put the ball out. Simple as that. If Arsenal had done the same, I would be embarassed; rest assured that Spurs fans would be screaming bloody murder had the situation gone the other way round. It was a crap goal, end of discussion.

Yet it still stands as a goal, and in any event Aresnal hadn't given a solid account for themselves. But finally the addition of Eboue, Cesc and Henry began to take effect. In particular, Eboue's aggressive runs down the side and Henry's controlled attack began to put pressure on Spurs. But it was the hitherto unhelpful Adebayor who unlocked the Tottenham goal. He won the ball on the touchline, beat his man, and then found Henry... who did the rest. A fine outside-boot finish beat Robinson, and Arsenal were back level at 1-1. Shortly after, the annoying and whiny Edgar Davids picked up his second yellow, and Spurs were down to ten men. Arsenal brought a huge amount of pressure, but of course Tottenham packed back in the box and thwarted everything that came their way. The last frantic ten minutes finished and the scoreline remained.

Wenger definitely showed that the Champions League is the primary focus for Arsenal. Still, despite some poor play and a dodgy game, the Gunners nearly took three points. But in the end, the changes to the side damaged the team's cohesion, and the lack of posession made the difference. So now Spurs are 4 points to the good; Arsenal have a game in hand but need help to catch them. Spurs are home to Bolton and away to West Ham, while Arsenal visit Sunderland and Man City before hosting Wigan in the final Highbury match. I certainly wouldn't be shocked to see Tottenham drop points, but Arsenal won't have it easy either, especially with the busy schedule over two weeks.

Player ratings:

Lehmann: 8 Really thought he had a quality game. Didn't make any stunning saves -- but that was because he was always in position to make them easy. Had no chance on the goal; had to dive at Davids' threat before the cross. Did some good work late in his sweeper-like way to clear a potential Spurs attack. Definitely making all the right decisions at the moment, which bodes well for Germany.

Djourou: 6 Didn't play too badly in the fullback role, though he didn't get forward much either. Fairly solid at center-half after Senderos left; not spectacular but decent.
Toure: 6 Not a bad game but certainly not at his best. Looked either exhausted or injured, particularly in the first half; a bit uncomfortable on the ball and not as active as usual. A worrying sign for Tuesday.
Senderos: 7 Was having a good game before the injury. I like the way he and Toure complement each other; Toure is faster and better in motion, while Senderos is better in the air. Hopefully he'll be OK for Tuesday, though Wenger's quick assessment is that he'll miss the match.
Flamini: 6 Had real trouble with Aaron Lennon, though he never made a mistake as such -- Lennon was just too fast for him. Had a better time after Lennon was subbed (a mistake on Martin Jol's part, I would say), and was a key part of the Arsenal threat in the last 15 minutes. His late-game workrate is amazing; he must be a Lance Armstrong-like metabolic freak.

Pires: 8 Had a great game. Got really stuck in, did a lot of work coming forward, but also did some good defensive tackling. Obviously trying to pump his value -- but at least this is the right way to do it.
Gilberto: 8 Also well played. He's really peaking in time for the World Cup. Some stellar tackling and very good distribution; looked good with the ball at his feet today.
Diaby: 6 Not bad for the youngster. Suffered from a lack of organization; he still isn't familiar with his midfield partners. But does obviously have skills -- could be a real force in the future.
Reyes: 5 Very disappointing. Had a few moments, but also many gaps where he fell off the pace. Inexcusable when he didn't play on Wednesday. Probably too focused on the trip to Spain. Had a golden opportunity midway through the second half, but took it too casually and allowed Robinson to save.

van Persie: 6 Also disappointing. Had some good play but never really integrated; doesn't appear that he and Adebayor know how to work together yet. Might have done better with his breakaway; the finish was uncharacteristically lacking. At least he brought energy to most of the match.
Adebayor: 6 The most difficult player to rate. Looked very poor in the first half -- many Arsenal moves broke down when he got involved. Looked like anything beyond the second touch was a disaster, and was zero threat in the first half. And yet his work for the goal was fantastic; obviously has a lot more comfort with Henry than anyone else.

Eboue: 7 (54' for Senderos) Brought a lot of energy to the match. Much more of a threat going forward; provided a key element in the late siege on Tottenham's goal. Must be more wary of getting caught forward though -- hasn't learned yet how to time his attacks.
Henry: 8 (62' for van Persie) A high-quality goal, though he made it look easy. Fought hard in the closing minutes for a second goal, but suffered a bit from the hectic nature of the finish.
Fabregas: 6 (62' for Diaby) Fought hard for the last part of the game, but he too suffered from the disorganized finish. Did bring a bit more thoughtfulness to the attack, but I think that has more value in the meat of the game rather than in a frantic close.

So there you go. Now on to Villareal, and the boys will have everything to play for. If we didn't have clarity before, we do now: this is the most important game, bar none. Hold nothing back and get the job done, you Gunners!

If it wasn't for his nice run and setting up Henry, I would have rated Adabayor as dreadful. Instead, he managed to salvage a "poor" from me. This isn't his first weak performance for the Gunners and I'm still Still not sold on the big man. But I have faith in Wenger.
Agree -- especially on having faith in Wenger. :)

Adebayor is not in the usual Arsenal mold. But I think that could be a good thing. He clearly looks more comfortable with Henry compared to anyone else. And who wouldn't, I suppose...
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