Following a mildly disappointing reverse at the Estadio do Dragoa on Wednesday we faced a Sunderland side that were shorn of key players and in a very average run of form, however crossing the North Bridge and walking along the circumference of the stadium near the railway line I heard a roar from the stadium – I couldn’t have missed an early goal surely? It was actually the reaction to the Toffees scoring their third goal against the indebted ones who inhabit Old Toilet, in Salford, Lancashire (my dislike for the club is such I can barely bring myself to use anything even close to their proper name) so the omens were good. We could make ground on at least one of the two teams above us.
Ashburton Grove on a Saturday afternoon has a different quality to a weekday evening especially in the family enclosure, which is were I was today, at the South end near the corner flag on the same side as the managers dug-outs. The screams and shouts were at a higher pitch than the anywhere else in the stadium – the mascot for the day even sat down two rows in front of me and further lowered the average age in my block.
To be fair to the opposition the Sunderland supporters (a.k.a the Mackems) pretty much filled their allocation and were vocal in spells although when the chant of “Stand up if you hate…. (insert name of local bitter rivals)” that every football crowd has started the “up” would sound like “oop” as one would expect from our northern opponents; we don’t call teams of their ilk “northern monkeys” for no reason!
As is customary we attacked the goal at my end in the first half and early on we had a taster of who would be the man of the match – Eboue, a surging run, followed by a teasing of the full back with dummying and weaving followed by a whipped in dangerous cross. It’s staggering that a player who was disliked by a significant minority of the fans last year has now turned out to be such a potent, attacking threat down the right, even when playing as a full back.
Repeatedly he skinned the Sunderland left back in a way we were hoping Theo would. It would be fair to say Theo is no longer the firm fans favourite he used to be, partly because of his indifferent form this season (however his fitness problems would account for some of this) but also due to him having been with us for four years but not improved to the extent we hoped he would.
We saw today he still had the pace to get past the full back; where Theo used his speed Eboue used trickery and changes of direction to cut through the defence.
From the beginning we exploited the wide positions on both sides, Nasri constantly turning his marker inside out with his wriggling, feigning and serving so that chances were being created aplenty, but of course with no genuine striker on the pitch it took till nearly half an hour was up before yet another scoring chance was finally converted. Watching Eboue run up to my corner I could see the full effect of his jinking run on the defence and as one defender moved to the goal and another away to close down Eboue a line of sight to goal opened up – “Go on, put your cross in thought that gap” I thought – and he did; Bendtner merely had to finish his run into the box for the tap in. The goal was all down to the Ivorian, as shown by how the rest of the forward players piled forward over to the corner flag in front of me to congratulate him. The red and white striped hordes opposite me were motionless, a few crossed arms were scattered across the away section, largely despondent by then.
Before the Bendtner goal the Mackems seemed content to contain our forward play but the undercurrent of niggly tackles surfaced a bit more as certain Arsenal players were singled out for special attention. Again Cesc took a battering and I saw Theo hauled down off the ball to prevent him running onto passes, Richardson and Cana both guilty of late tackles, the latter given only a yellow when his two footed lunge on our right back was worthy of a red. Clearly Sunderland’s lack of possession was frustrating them into snide, dirty tackling which the referee seemed quite happy to allow, perhaps the rotund and shell-suited Bruce’s who had become more animated as his side went behind used some hand signals to suggest “leave your foot in late, let them know your there” as their play descended into a scrappy, ugly style of play.
In the second half the previously blue sky and sunshine gave way to a gun metal grey cloud covering and the temperature dipped as the game continued as it had been for the first forty five minutes – all attacking threat from us with lack of finishing leading to missed opportunities to extend our lead.
After the hour Mark Bennet the referee decided to give Sunderland a number of undeserved free kicks. One was when Vermaelen and Jones both went for a high clearance from the Sunderland keeper into our box and as the ballooned away from both of them the Verminator tripped over and caught Kenwynne Jones ankle and brought him down – but well after the ball had gone. Before that Silvestre (affectionately called “Fish-head” by some) used his strength to hold off Bent and was penalised for a “shoulder-to-shoulder” coming together. Now I’ve never been a fan of Fish head but being completely objective about his performance today I have to say I only counted two misplaced passes – otherwise he contained the Bent/Jones forward line well.
With us being only one goal in front I feared one of the many incorrectly awarded free kicks that were being given against us would result in an equalizer for Sunderland and during the last ten minutes of the game the tension around the ground was palpable. Up till then Sunderland only managed two definite chances, a shot scuffed wide by Jones and a later chance where a cross only needed a prod from Bent to score when he actually just brushed the ball with the outside of his foot – how we laughed at him, and he knew it!
Ramsey had a good game too (one bit of ball retention while he’d been upended drew sustained applause and appreciation from us) yet he gave away the ball in two just as critical positions and while he got a little bit of negative feedback from the crowd for this, this was nothing compared to the flak Bendtner got for his attempt to win a penalty, Talking to someone who was in the north end of the stadium it was clear our Dane won few friends with his feeble dive.
As a few flakes of sleet fell on me, being only eight rows back and uncovered by the roof I began to curse the late spell of referee-assisted Sunderland pressure on our goal. Almunia also got some studs in his face from further dirty play by Sunderland.
Perhaps Bennet realised he was overly favouring Sunderland and that may be why we were finally awarded a penalty – a true collectors item post Eduardo-gate. From my end of the ground I couldn’t tell what had been awarded initially, no such doubt when Cesc netted the penalty and the tension lifted.
So we gain three points on the unmentionables, to cut the deficit to two, but the team led by the all-round despicable captain stay six clear of us. A satisfying return to winning ways but another stiff test awaits us next Saturday at Stoke.
Hey, how about practising defending long throws this week Arsene?