Sunday, 29 January 2012

Wenger lives to fight another day. But it's lucky, lucky Arsenal

Will we look back one day and talk about the winter’s evening Arsene Wenger was 45 minutes from resigning his post as manager of quadruple European Champions Arsenal?
In five years, when Wenger is 67 (still three years younger than Sir Alex Ferguson is now), will we look back at the three highly fortunate goals, and sigh "Lucky, lucky Arsenal" like they used to in the 1930s when titles were ten-a-penny at Highbury.
I hope so. He’ll have been there 20 years by then. But some will remember.
That day in late January, 2012 when they were 2-0 down against Aston Villa at half-time? Not 48 hours after telling fans he was intent on winning the grand old FA Cup, the Frenchman from German-speaking Strasbourg found himself all at sea and sinking faster than a cruise ship captained by an Italian with wet socks.
Villa just did what Wolves, Fulham, Swansea and Manchester United have done in recent weeks. Exploited a flat-footed Arsenal defence. After a neat-interchange down the left, Robbie Keane’s teasing cross set up an aerial one-on-one between Laurent Koscielny (there are far better centrebacks in the local Sunday League than this particular Frenchman) and the old warhorse Richard Dunne. Only one winner. 1-0.
Then, with Arsenal pressing and the half-time pie beckoning, Villa did it again. Stephen Ireland set up Darren Bent, who timed his run to perfection before unleashing. Arsenal’s deputy Pole-in-goal Lucasz Fabianski blocked but Bent was there to finish the rebound. He generally has been throughout his career.
At half-time,  former England manager Graham Taylor witnessed Wenger being roundly booed by the Gooners and said: " You see your side in total control but you don't see the opposition goalkeeper worked, that is what is frustrating people."
That, and a six-year trophy drought. And that record-breaking three-match losing streak which has put Arsenal in danger of missing out on the four Champions League places.
But after the break, God smiled. Even Wenger smiled.
First Dunne, the opening goal scorer already booked, slides through Aaron Ramsey. Stupid challenge. He’d already lost the ball. Penalty but no sending off. Robin van Persie (who else?) slots it.
Minutes later, Walcott breaks down the right, beats one, cuts in and tries a stupid shot from a ridiculous angle. Given gets a touch, then Alan Hutton – yes, a former Spurs fullback – clears straight in to the unknowing Walcott and the ball bounces in, 2-2. How lucky was that?
And they were ahead on the hour when Koscielny of all people charged forward, perhaps fired-up by his half-time roasting for that first Villa goal. In slides Bent with a strikers tackle and it’s another penalty. Van Persie goes the other way. 3-2. A miracle.
Though there was a slight feeling that they may just have scored those three goals too soon, Arsenal held on.
Lucky? Oh yes. But a win’s a win. Wenger lives to fight another day. Specifically against Middlesbrough or Sunderland in round five towards the end of February.

On a weekend where we had witnessed the embarrassment of England's cricketers being skittled for 72 by Pakistan and Novak Djokovic winning the longest-ever Grand Slam final against Rafa Nadal in Melbourne, the Emirates was able to match the drama.

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