Would a well-established top 4 club celebrate a draw as if they had won the Premier League Championship, Champions League and FA Cup all rolled into one?
If proof were ever needed of the relative sizes of the two clubs playing in front of me today, it was provided by the jubilant celebrations of the Sunderland fans at the opposite end of the ground on the final whistle. As I was behind the goal at the North Bank, thankfully, little of their singing could be made out due to their distance from me and the unintelligibility of the northern dialect of the Sunderland fans.
The match preparation for your humble scribe could have been better, for one reason and another the was no time for the leisurely imbibing of a number of “pre match lager relaxers,” more like a frantic necking of a couple of bottles to settle the nerves. The defeat at the bus stop in Fulham on Wednesday meant we had a chance to apply pressure on the evil empire of Old Cow Paddock, hence the slightly tense atmosphere around the stands from the start.
The skies were a gun-metal grey above Ashburton Grove and the temperature slightly cooler than is expected for early March with a drizzle threatening to break out at any moment.
The loudest cheer when the team was being read out was naturally reserved for young Aaron and rightly so, many were hoping for an appearance from him at some stage.
With the standard back five, sans Vermaelen, the midfield gave me a little cause for concern – not just because of the inclusion of Denilson, but the deployment of Nasri, the closest thing we have to a midfield creator in Cesc’s absence, on the wings. Jack, Denilson and Diaby made up the trio in the middle three, with the front three being Bendy (up top), Arshavin (wide left) and the aforementioned Nasri (wide right) seeming a tad lopsided and reliant on Diaby having one of those days where he has a good game. Fairly quickly it became obvious today was not “one of those days” as he misplaced several passes and seemed to lack the confidence to drive forward or take the initiative in attacking, preferring to pass the responsibility onto a team mate.
While the north bank can have the best atmosphere when the team is on top, a natural adjunct of the fervour in support there is the tendency to carp at players when attacking moves break down. Not only was Diaby singled out for treatment but the hostility shown towards Denilson, admittedly not one of my favourite players, was undermining not just to him but the team as a whole – for example when Arshavin had cleared out a ball from defence after a rare Sunderland corner Denilson was being tracked by a Sunderland midfielder as he ran towards our goal to receive it so he had to pass to Clichy, who failed to anticipate it and a corner was conceded.
The crowd reaction could not have been more hostile if it was Adebayor defending a corner at that point and I could see Denilson visibly shrink. If he was having a bad game at that point the only way was down from then onwards. Just what the team need.
Nasri was also clearly unhappy with his position on the wings as there seemed a lot of off the ball annoyance at the way the game was passing the Arsenal midfield by coming from the skipper on the day.
According to this humble scribe Jack was carrying Diaby (and Denilson to an extent), as without his efforts the Arsenal midfield was being pulled apart, his defensive abilities were badly needed today in the absence of Song.
It would be fair to say also that while some may view Bendtner as a legend in his own underpants, in the first half he led the line well.
Diaby showed just how little he resembled Vieira in his style of midfield play and without Cesc to orchestrate the play it appeared that Jack was having to do it all on his own.
After Sunderland had started with attacking intent, pressing and harrying us in a robust but largely fair way, the game drifted into a pattern of Arsenal having possession and Sunderland falling back into the role of nullifiers and as time wore on they decided to find out at what point energetic challenges could be deemed fouls.
During the first half the referee was unnoticed by many. However, as the second half started it became obvious as the tackles were flying in that the Ex-ManUre Sunderland manager (S Bruce) had obviously decided to target Jack, who became the target of numerous niggly and painful fouls.
At one point he had been taken out by Bramble and whilst clutching his ankle and lying on the floor Arsenal kept possession and had to wait for him to hobble back onside before continuing the attack.
Another message that must have been transmitted at half time was to the referee and that was he was not going to be the League Referees winner of the most unpopular referee at Ashburton Grove for the 2010-2011 season (sponsored by Lord Fergie) so he’d better be the type of referee I’ve seen for almost every match I’d ever witnessed. The type who will allow lots of free kick worthy fouls by the away team to go unpunished by while lesser first time fouls are deemed worthy of yellow cards for Arsenal. After being kicked from pillar to post Jacks first show of dissent produced a yellow card as it did for Nasri, who merely stood his ground, again a first infringement.
How Jordan Henderson escaped a yellow till almost an hour was up I’ll never know or their goalie who’s blatant time wasting from 70 minutes onwards was not even disguised.
To my eyes the only Arsenal player likely to produce a goal, at least until Nasri moved more central once Denilson was substituted (to ironic cheering as he went off – way to support your team guys), was Andrey who as usual sowed his superior ball retention skills and ability to drive the attack forward.
The change in attitude by the officials most visibly showed when Arshavin had the ball in the net, a neat one two and Arshavin rounded the keeper and slotted home, and it was called off side.
The ecstasy that was cut short by the offside call was replaced by murmurings of outrage when news went round the stands that it was a yard onside, according to supporters in the stand following the match by text commentary.
Similarly, when Arshavin ran towards the goal in front of me, whilst being barged by Bramble all the time as he went into penalty area it seemed to me he was knocked off the ball.
Cue the outrage at a denied penalty. Arshavin never removes doubt in a referees mind by making the most of contact in the penalty area, in fact he tries to minimise his chances for a penalty by trying to stay on his feet.
Now can you imagine the Shrek freak of Old Toilet doing that? The same one who falls down BEFORE contact is made in order to win Lord Fergie’s team a penalty?
You can almost imagine the stupid looking grin stretched over his Shrek face as he picks himself up, as if he’s just been given relief by his sex worker of pensionable age for the day, having got exactly the sort of PK Lord Fergie is used to getting, but hates being on the receiving end of.
Despite a late Chamakh inspired spell of pressure the final whistle spelt two points dropped and the team trooped off disconsolately although it was good to see Jack clap all four corners of the ground before he was the last to leave the pitch.
I didn’t notice any other players acknowledge the crowd much, apart from Chamakh (albeit briefly) and all eyes are on Anfield tomorrow to see just how costly today’s failure to win will turn out to be.
Expect the title race to take a few more unexpected turns but, for now, gird your loins for the remaining games fellow gooners and get behind your team.