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NOW It’s A Merry Christmas!!!
Arsenal made a statement on Sunday afternoon. This club just will not fade away or go crawl under a rock like many expected after the disappointing home defeat to Chelsea. They refused to believe that the 2009-10 Premier League season had become a two-horse race, if it already wasn’t before. Despite losing their best striker, and with their best midfielder just barely making the bench, Arsenal came into a crucial league fixture against a team with whom they were level on points but ahead of in third place on goal differential. This was the mindset going into Arsenal’s sort-of Boxing Day match.
Aston Villa was at pretty much full strength, hadn’t conceded a goal in five matches, hadn’t lost a match since the beginning of November, and had already beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and United, the latter two away. That run had drawn them level on points with an Arsenal side that had won 3 of 4 since the Chelsea match. Yet it had been almost 10 years since Arsenal last lost their Boxing Day/post-Christmas fixture, while Villa has historically struggled after the holiday. And did I mention that Arsenal have never beaten Aston Villa at the Emirates?
On paper, it looked like just the kind of match where Arsenal could be found wanting. Some accounts have characterized the first half as less-than-entertaining, but I thought the play was quick and open and both teams created chances. Eduardo continues to make nice touches inside and around the box, but his finishing is yet to catch up with him. If he wasn’t getting into scoring positions, I would be more worried. He is suffering from a severe lack of confidence that can only be reversed by scoring goals, which means playing time. Diaby, Denilson, and Song did a great job in midfield of shutting down Villa’s attack, which only threatened for a few minutes in the first half when they launched balls into the box.
Quotes from Wenger and some analyses suggest that Arsenal were in the ascendancy when Fabregas came on, but having re-watched the second half, the midfield was struggling in the first 10-15 minutes after the break. Attacks were breaking down in the middle third due to misplaced passes, a few coming from Denilson. He was finally taken off for Fabregas. That is the moment the match changed.
Arsenal immediately looked more threatening and were able to get the ball deep into the attacking third. Fabregas’s free-kick was a stunner; it takes something special to not even give Brad Friedel a chance. After that, Arsenal kept on pushing. As Villa were forced to chase the match, a horrible pass by Milner followed by a perfect, long diagonal ball from Traore, whom had quite probably his best match from a defensive perspective. His pass released Walcott, who found Fabregas for a great finish and the second goal.
Was it worth it? If Fabregas now misses two to three weeks, was bringing him on worth the three points. Arsene believes so, and so do I. You have to win the match you are playing, not matches two weeks from now. Also, the match with Villa was a six-pointer. This match HAD to be won. And it was, by Arsenal’s genuine match-winner, Cesc Fabregas. Goals 10 and 11 for the season sunk Villa and put Arsenal into second place, if only for a few hours. Superlatives describing Cesc are flooding the web as we speak, and I don’t need to add to them. Just consider that he is on pace to end the season with 20 goals and 22 assists, something which hasn’t been done since Henry in 2003-04.
This Arsenal team is not going to willingly go away and leave the title race to United and Chelsea. It’s also not going to prove 99% of football pundits right. Instead, it will fight on. It will need to. With Cesc facing a brief lay-off, Denilson aggravating his back injury, and Song about to leave for Africa after two more matches, we will conceivably be playing an entire second-string midfield for much of January. For me, that means Diaby, Ramsey and possibly moving Nasri back into midfield. However Arsene works it, the entire squad will be needed to get through the next couple of weeks.
But the foundation has been built this December. Looking at the big picture, one has to wonder whether Arsenal can really win the league title with van Persie out for the rest of the season. But football works on a game-by-game basis and, like Arsene, I believe the hunger is there. I also believe that the team spirit is there. These were the two intangibles which were missing last season. Chelsea will soon be facing the loss of Drogba and others for the ANC and United won’t be back at full-strength any time soon. If Arsenal win their game-in-hand on January 6th, home to Bolton, we will pull within one point of the leaders. That was inconceivable only 3 weeks ago.
Also, enjoy this cameraphone video of Cesc’s free-kick: