English Premier League 2006–2007: Blackburn 0 – Arsenal 2

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
January 14th, 2007 • 11:40 am

I haven’t written about the EPL and Arsenal in a while, but this was mostly because this Arsenal team has been so infuriatingly inconsistent and has kept wasting the numerical and psychological advantage gained in fantastic results such as the 1-0 victory at Old Trafford with fairly abject performances against much less challenging opposition such as Middlesborough or Bolton.

With titles hopes fading so soon in the season, it was hard to get excited and sustain that excitement. There were more great results (the 3-0 home victories against Liverpool and Tottenham, the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, etc.), but again not enough consistency to make these results really matter.

With the holiday period, things appear to have changed. There was still a major blip at Sheffield United, but three wins out of four games in 10 days was not a bad return at all. And then there were the two cup games against Liverpool at Anfield… We are lucky enough to get the FA Cup games on Fox Sports World Canada this year. (In previous years, they were only available on pay-per-view at pretty outrageous prices.) So I did get to see the FA Cup third-round game at Anfield on January 6. And it was a pretty impressive and exciting performance, in the supposed “fortress” of the Liverpool home stadium.

But then Arsenal had to travel again to Anfield the next Tuesday for the (delayed) Carling Cup quarterfinal. The Carling Cup is not really taken seriously by any of the top clubs until they reach the final, so there’s a tendency to play the reserve players, to give them some experience, and see what happens. After the important FA Cup victory on Saturday, it was clearly expected that Arsène Wenger would do just that, since Arsenal was still in the running for two major competitions (the FA Cup and the Champions’ League) and some players had to be rested.

While Liverpool are still in the Champions’ League too, they face the current title holders Barcelona in the next round, and no one gives them much chance of getting through, even if they won that title themselves in 2005. So effectively it looked like the Carling Cup would be their only hope of silverware, and Benitez would field a full-strength team in this tie. Most seasoned Arsenal fans figured that their reserve team simply didn’t have a hope in hell.

Only Benitez didn’t field his first team after all. And boy, did he ever pay for it. We didn’t get to see this game here in Canada, but I saw the highlights of the 6-3 Arsenal victory, with the four Baptista goals. This was yet another fantastic performance. Let us remember here that this was at Anfield, against a team that hadn’t conceded a single goal at home in several months, and hadn’t been defeated there in a long time. Yes, it was a reserve team, and yes, it was “only” the Carling Cup, but still… It’s hard not to get excited by such results.

But then it was “back to earth” time for the Gunners, and more specifically back to Blackburn at Ewood Park on Saturday, in the rain, the wind and the cold. Because of the inconsistency displayed this season, many Arsenal fans had good reasons to be worried. And when Gilberto was dismissed after 12 minutes for a foolish reaction to yet another stupid Savage challenge, the worry turned into very deep anxiety.

And then the most fantastic thing happened. The dismissal appeared to give more steel and determination to that Arsenal team. In spite of their numerical advantage, the Blackeye Rovers were unable to create much (although they went dangerously close on a couple of occasions), and the Gunners were still able to use some intricate passing to create openings. In spite of the lack of support given to them by the referee (a couple of incidents could have easily led to the dismissal of a Blackburn player and restored parity), they fought hard, without losing their patience and temper, and they deservedly went in front with a very well taken Thierry Henry free-kick headed in by Kolo Touré.

It was still a slender advantage at half-time, and the Gunners would have to maintain their determination and discipline for another 45 minutes. But they didn’t fail, and on the contrary were able to create more danger, which ultimately led to the superb second goal created by Thierry Henry and Cesc Fábregas and converted by the TH14 himself. (That’s the kind of guy he is. He both creates and scores goals, sometimes both at the same time.) From the half-way line, a fantastic run, followed by a great one-two with Fábregas, and then the most perfect finish, only slightly aesthetically ruined by the fact that the keeper got his fingertips to it. (It would have looked even better if he hadn’t, but Friedel is a great keeper.)

What a goal. What a performance. What a result. This, more than anything else, should give the Arsenal team great belief for the rest of the season. Because it comes on the heals of two great results at Anfield, and it was yet another great performance in a region of England that usually exposes the Gunners’ frailties.

Now, of course, Arsenal still haven’t won anything this season. They are still pretty much out of the title race, baring a disastrous string of results for both Manchester United and Chelsea, which is highly unlikely, and they still have a lot of work to do in the cup competitions: Bolton at home in the next round of the FA Cup, Tottenham in two legs in the Carling Cup (and then probably Chelsea in the final, if they make it), and several games still in the Champions’ League (one hopes!). And Manchester United themselves come for a visit next Sunday at the Emirates.

But at last the Gunners have been able to put together a sequence of great results, in games that were expected to be substantial challenges. At last there are reasons for the fans to get excited again, and, more important, to maintain that excitement. Gilberto will be suspended for three games (he has very little chance of winning an appeal of Rob Styles’ decision, unfortunately), and we still have the Gallas injury to contend with. But there are reasons to be optimistic.

Now all we need is a nice emphatic victory at the Emirates next Sunday! Much easier said than done, obviously… But we beat them at Old Trafford, so why not do it at home in front of 60,000 fans?

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