After a seemingly interminable international break, where the only surprising results were Sweden narrowly beating the Netherlands to qualify for Euro 12 as best runners up, and possibly a Bendtner inspired Denmark beating Portugal, real football returned at last!
For 25 minutes of each half, it even returned for Arsenal, who like much of last year narrowly squeaked a home win despite dominating for 75 minutes of the match against a largely mediocre but hard-working Sunderland.
It was important to start quickly on the back of poor result and the long break, and the team started wonderfully, with Van Persie scoring a wonderfully well taken goal with his ‘chocolate’ leg after only 29 seconds. The way he used his body position to fashion the chance and the explosive manoeuvre and finish from the edge of the box were fine examples of the Arsenal captain’s strengths. For the next 25 minutes, he and the team were on fire, attacking with a confidence and a sense of conviction not seen for seven months or so. The fast start was reminiscent of the great side of seven years ago, but the quality, confidence and killer instinct is no longer there. Despite the star man’s attempts to channel the spirit of Bergkamp with a wonderful turn and chip with his wrong foot that came out off the inside of the post, the others still lack his chutzpah. This was firmly evident following Sunderland’s equaliser. From what was their first shot in anger, ex-Arsenal trainee Sebastien Larsson continued his great recent form for club and country by bending a perfect free-kick from 30 yards away from the keeper and into the top corner, before trying not to celebrate too much. He’s always been a good player, who came through at Arsenal at a time when he was never going to get games, as opposed to now, when he would, and now he has found a level of conviction in his play that wasn’t evident before.
Once Sunderland scored, the stadium went quiet, and the home team’s confidence visibly drained away to an alarming extent. Sunderland smelt blood, and for 10 minutes had all the play and created 2 very presentable chances, the second of which forced a great save from Schzesney following a point blank header from the endlessly fouling Cattermole. Interviewed afterwards, the young Polish ‘keeper played down the save, saying the Sunderland captain should have scored…
Arsenal, bizarrely were quite lucky to make it to the break level despite having been so dominant before the equaliser. Whatever was said during the break calmed everybody down, and despite an improved defensive display from Sunderland, there was only really one team trying to score, and with about ten minutes to go, Van Persie hit a free-kick equal to Larsson’s into the other corner of the goal. Despite the elation, I was also thinking what the Arsenal skipper said in his post match interview, along the lines of ‘its’ about time’. The Dutchman was something of a free-kick specialist until 2008-2009, but since then has only scored with one that was massively deflected last year. That said, his free-kicks have a love affair with post and/or bar in the way of much of his finishing. Since returning from injury, as well as scoring more than anyone else in England, he has also hit the post about ten or eleven times. An unusual statistic. Anyway, after the usual succession of awful free-kicks and corners that preceded it, it was rare moment of dead ball quality from the gunners. From then on, Sunderland pressed without really looking likely, and Arsenal were typically wasteful on the counter. A win that was much nervier than it should have been, in a game with three wonderful goals.
From an Arsenal perspective the defence did ok despite Jenkinson’s quite understandable capacity for panic (given a year ago he was playing in Dover), and Koscielney and Mertesacker still trying to work out who each other are. Not great, but given that the last time Arsenal had the same back four two games in a row was march, and three of them are new signings, it seems churlish to complain about a slightly faulty offside trap. Song was occasionally wayward, but generally excellent, despite getting booked for his first nothing foul. Arteta was awful and seemed slow and indecisive. Let’s hope it’s a blip. Rosicky was excellent when the team were keeping the ball, and along with Udinese away, this was the best I’ve seen him play since before his awful injury in 2008. Walcott was largely ineffectual but still nearly scored, Gervinho faded and wasted a good shooting chance, and Arshavin was impressive off the bench. Van Persie continues his consistent excellence. This makes his contract situation all the more worrying, as although he reiterated his commitment to the club in the programme and when interviewed afterwards, he did so in a very vague fashion. Understandably he is waiting to see what the club does in January and how the season goes, as the next contract he gets will probably be his last big one.
Special mention to Howard Webb, who managed to book as many Arsenal players as Sunderland players despite a massive variation in the foul count. Cattermole gave away about 5 or 6 free-kicks in quick succession in the first half without even a talking to, and Song and Koscilney were booked for their first fouls, the former being particularly innocuous. Another example of the endless list of northern referees giving very different treatment to Northern players compared with southerners and foreigners. I don’t think it’s intentional (unless its Man U fan Mike Riley or the foul-mouthed Phil Dowd), but I think we do need more referees from outside of Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire (about 80% at Premier League level!).
Elsewhere, Newcastle displayed their new-found resilience coming back from behind twice against Spurs, in a game the Geordies should have won. A great left-foot strike across the keeper from the enigma that is Shola Ameobi shared the spoils. West Brom beat Wolves 2-0 in the Black Country derby with two well taken goals and Man City’s billionaires stuffed Villa without much fuss, and currently seem well on their way to buying the title. Speaking of buying titles, Chelsea finally worked out that if everyone else can beat Everton at the moment, they should join in, with two very well taken goals, and Tim Howard flap from a corner. A special mention for 19 year old Apostolos Vellios, who scored with his first touch off the bench after eight seconds for his second Everton goal in five matches. Not bad for a £50,000 signing.
The Liverpool – Man U grudge match resulted in a fortunate draw for the champions, and Evra accusing Suarez of racism, which we will no doubt hear more about. Frankly Suarez is a nasty little cheat and it wouldn’t surprise me at all, but equally Evra has always been a snide, dig-in-the-ribs off-the-ball type, and has history of spectacular hypocrisy with series of very public complaints about a whole range of people. Both are great players, but I think most of the country would be reasonably happy if they were deported. Two of the most dislikeable characters in English football.
As a complete contrast, Robert Pires is now on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/piresrobert7 . Not only a great, great footballer, but a genuinely good, kind and thoughtful man. His autobiography, ‘Footballeur’ is a very enjoyable and interesting read, only slightly behind Charlie George, Perry Groves, Bobby Robson and the bizarre 3rd person approach of Pele in my sports books.