Yesterday, I was too distraught to write a match review. Even now I am quite peeved but there were too many positives in the game and I think it deserves a proper mention even though the horrendous tackle cast a gloomy shadowed all the bright moments.
The start of the game reminded me of our previous two visits to this stadium. Our players were nervous, hacking the ball away as if defending in the last few minutes and Stoke were all over us. The hosts looked for opportunities to get a set-piece with a preference for a throw in. We looked vulnerable for the first few and finally succumbed in the eighth minute.
There were 10 Arsenal players in the box and 5 Stoke players, yet two of them were unmarked at the far post. I won’t dwell on this as I just want to focus on positives.
After the goal Stoke made a serious mistake of retreating into their own half. Before they scored we could see them pressing high up in our half and making it difficult for us to push forward. Once Stoke retreated, it became easier for us to control he ball and keep possession. We didn’t get our game flowing for a while but our confidence grew with every minute and after a while it was clear that Stoke are in for a tough night.
The first goal was a collectors item! We haven’t seen too many inch perfect crosses from this young Arsenal squad but Cesc is Cesc. The header from Bendtner was as good as any I have seen this season. He had to generate some pace, get the accuracy, and see off the challenge from two defenders. Bendtner has been pivotal for Denmark during the qualifiers and once again showed he had the makings of a top class center forward. I feel if we can find him 4-5 times in a game with a cross, he is bound to put one in.
After the goal Stoke tried to come at us but our players were confident of dealing with their physical game. Initially we were struggling to get the ball on the ground and keep possession. But now Stoke were struggling to get a touch in spite of their physical approach. I’ve a feeling that they must have been frustrated by this and it could have culminated in that horrible challenge, but that’s pure speculation.
Ramsey was extremely impressive in the middle. For someone so young and inexperienced, he was able to control the ball with his head, chest and feet even under pressure. He was also able to take the physical challenges in his stride, move forward with the ball and pass it in all directions.
By this time the movement of the front line had also been synchronized. Players moved around seamlessly and we looked like we could get a second anytime. I was also delighted that some of our players tried a few cracks from distance even if Stoke got bodies in the way.
The way our Center Backs played aggressively with Fuller and Sidibe was heartwarming. Clichy and Song were also very good in physical battles with these big forwards. Stoke never came close to creating a proper counter attack. It’s easy to miss such good work and I’m sure if we continue doing this in the remaining games, we will be really tough to beat.
I also felt our players raised the tempo of the game to a level Stoke just couldn’t match. There were a number of fouls that were not given simply because our players managed to keep possession in spite of the fouls. There was a serious “F**k You” kind of spirit in the players and they really wanted a win.
The challenge on Ramsey did slow the tempo down and for a few minutes I was really worried. All the good work could have been undone by a reckless moment from a looney. Thankfully, even Stoke were stunned and we didn’t suffer further damage on the field.
The way the players responded after a few minutes was exhilarating. Once again our tempo, movement and passing was way beyond Stoke’s limited talents and they were completely outclassed. At this point I was sure we were going to create a lot of chances, but when a team puts 10 men behind the ball for the final few minutes it’s very difficult to score. We needed a little luck and I feel we got it because the referee was a little sympathetic after the tackle.
I don’t mean that the penalty was not stone-walled, it was. But this referee hadn’t given us one earlier and denied us one after the second was scored. That leads me to believe that he gave it out of sympathy or a sense of justice that outweighed his obvious bias!
It was a big moment in the game and I have always been a little concerned with Cesc taking the penalties. Fortunately, even though Sorensen guessed right (I mean left), the ball nestled into the back of the net. Is this the moment when our luck finally changes!? Only time will tell.
Another great aspect of the game was that none of our players shied away from a challenge even after the injury. Stoke persisted with their fouls but Arsenal did not surrender.
Finally, it gave me immense pleasure to see that we didn’t sit back after the second goal and pushed for the third. The “F**K You” spirit had returned and Arsenal meant business. Every single player maintained focus right till the end and achieved a result that will achieve monumental proportions in history if we go on to win this title.
There were other notable positives like Eduardo coming on as a substitute, Almunia having a very good game (I remember only one flap and that was given as a foul on the keeper), the team huddle at the end and so on.
This game was a trailer of the heights this team is capable of achieving. Let us not forget we were playing without the likes of Arshavin, RvP, Gallas and Diaby. I hope this particular incident acts as a reverse of that Birmingham game. The first step is in the right direction. We have to replicate the same spirit and desire in the following games and there is every chance we will be celebrating in May.