Date: 22nd March 2009 at 1:09pm
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It was another journey into the Gods at St. James Park and yet another kick off interfered with by television. Incidentally, the last time Arsenal kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday at St. James was December 1997 when a solitary Ian Wright goal gave the Gunners a 1-0 victory. On the one hand, awaking at 7am as opposed to 5am was quite welcome, on the other, catching a night bus through Elephant and Castle amongst lairy piss heads at 2.30am was not quite so welcome. Those that still choose to believe the myth of Newcastle and their rousing support might like to know that the away fans have been moved this season from the corner of the South West Upper Tier to the centre as, get this, the away support were in an acoustically favourable position and thus drowned out the home support. Huge gaps in the seats were also glarigly apparent. The self proclaimed world’s most loyal supporters? My arse. Newcastle is a club getting exactly what it deserves, hounding out manager after manager based on surreal expectation. The Tottenham of the North if you will.

Earlier results had blown the title race wide open, sadly too late for ourselves to be concerned, but had also conspired to put Newcastle into the bottom three. The early exchanges elucidated both sides respective need for all three points, the upshot was a half full of attacking intent and defensive miscreance. The Gunners carved out the first chance of the match when van Persie put Bendtner through in the channel, Bendtner took a touch before sending a shot across Harper’s goal which he clawed out with no red and white presence to feed avariciously on the rebound. Damien Duff then decided to take a leaf out of Morten Gamst Pedersen’s book by diving under the merest insinuation of Samir Nasri’s presence. Penalty appeals were waved away but the typically inept Halsey did not have the cahouns to book Duff. I can’t blame the likes of Duff for trying it on anymore, whilst the criminally lazy salary leeches at the Football Association refuse to punish retrospectively, it is always going to happen. Even if you’re caught diving, the punishment is only, maybe, possibly, sometimes a yellow card. Versus the prospect of winning your side a penalty, it’s a calculated risk in which the arithmetic favours the offender considerably. But Halsey was in fully fledged arsehole mode and rectified himself by giving an incredibly soft penalty anyway. Almunia fumbled an Enrique cross and then was very harshly adjudged to have fouled Ryan Taylor in his desperation to claim the ball back. Justice was served when Martins’ weak spot kick was held by the Spanish keeper.

Halsey might as well have spent the match clutching a can of Duff beer, because he was certainly a homer. When Steven Taylor cynically and intentinally sent an elbow into the side of Arshavin’s face a reluctant free kick was given. When Gallas jumped into Lovenkrands, with no elbow showing, he was booked. Quelle justice? From the incredibly elevated position of the away section in the third tier behind the goal, I could see Taylor’s intent, I refuse to believe Halsey and his assistant couldn’t from about a mile and a half closer than I was. Anyhoo, viscous officiating aside, after some Newcastle pressure following the penalty miss, Arsenal looked for a smash and grab. Bendtner, who had the beating of Coloccini in the air all evening, flicked on Almunia’s kick to van Persie, he played a clever through ball to Arshavin whose goalbound shot was denied by an outstanding last ditch block from Steven Taylor. Arsenal and Newcastle then began trading punches in the manner of a fight in a Rocky film, all offense, no guard as chins were exposed and noses were bloodied. Firstly, Martins sent a header agonisingly wide from a Duff corner. It was Martins again who was chief protagonist as he played a delightful through ball to Lovenkrands, the Dane skipped past Toure, only to be denied by a perceptive last ditch tackle from Gael Clichy. A man who really seems to have found his form again.

Arsenal responded when Andrey Arshavin motored past Steven Taylor and his shot from thirty yards grazed Harper’s crossbar. The Magpies found themselves in behind Arsenal again when Enrique and Duff combined on their left, Duff’s low cross was tailor made for Lovenkrands to administer the fatal blow but the ball became entangled under his feet Baptista stylee. This time it was the Gunners turn for an uppercut, Nasri sent a brilliant ball over the top of the Barcodes defence, van Persie controlled with balletic grace, but his finish was thwarted by the outstretched arm of Harper. Soon after, Nasri’s through ball for Bendtner was overcooked, yet a comical slip by Coloccini let Bendtner in, he had the presence of mind to cut the ball back to van Persie, but he was once again thwarted by a brlliant last ditch block from Steven Taylor. It really had been breathless stuff. I wondered aloud at half time whether we might have been better off starting Song over Diaby, whose lacklustre passing and general lack of effort to track back had engendered our difficulty in dealing with Lovenkrands and Martins in the first half. But Diaby would have his part to play yet.

The first blood would be struck twelve minutes into the second half, yet another in a catalogue of neck high tackles on Gael Clichy culminated in a free kick for Arsenal from the left. Arshavin sent a cross floating in and Nicklas Bendtner contorted the sinews of his neck muscles to swivel in mid air and send a header that floated like a butterfly into the roof of Harper’s net. But Newcastle’s repudiation would be swift. They sent their kick off straight towards Bacary Sagna, who miscued his header towards the pouncing Martins, Gallas’ attempted tackle lacked sufficient authority and Martins gathered the ball at the second attempt, lashing it past a helpless Almunia. The away fans had not even finished their first chorus of ‘Super Nicklas Bendtner.’ The away side’s advance back to the drawing board was aided when Newcastle lost their second centre half of the afternoon, the imperious Taylor no longer able to carry on. Arsenal capitalised in expedient fashion, within seven minutes they were back in front. Diaby played the ball into van Persie with his back to goal, he held it and waited for Diaby’s reciprocal run and duly played the ball into his path, Diaby dispatched an emphatic finish in front of the Gallowgate End and Newcastle chins sunk notably into chests.

Three minutes later, the Arsenal moved a further goal ahead. Nasri again used van Persie as a sound board on the edge of the area, van Persie found Nasri’s metronomic run with a precise pass that allowed Nasri to smash the ball low past Harper. An already very subdued St. James fell into contemplative silence, with only the ebullience of the visiting fans audible. An almight goalmouth scramble almost saw another for Arsenal, with Harper thwarting Bendtner three times in succession. Denilson then forced a good sprawling stop from Harper. The Newcastle goalie was now being asked to mimic Taylor’s one man band act when Clichy sent van Persie through with a delightful defence splitting pass, but van Persie took one touch too many and Harper smothered him. van Persie would then be guilty of an atrocious act of selfishness by failing to play Bendtner clean through on goal in the dying minutes, before Diaby’s rasping shot rattled the woodwork in injury time. Lovenkrands’ substitution was jeered loduly by the Geordie faithful and the stadium was three quarters empty at the final whistle. Can we all please stop labouring under the impression that incendiary home support is an exclusive trait of our home ground? Thank you.

The second half performance was very pleasing indeed, on our way out of the stadium after the gruelling fourteen flights of stairs down to the street outside the ground, we heard a Newcastle fan on his phone sincerely repeat the words, ‘we battered ’em. They got three lucky breakaways and scored them all.’ He wasn’t joking. The defensive malaise of the first half would have been punished by a better side and that was always a concern with going with such an attacking line up away from home. Had Martins converted his penalty, we might have been staring at a very different pot of latte this morning. Complacency is a dangerous thing for a side to succumb to and I saw plenty of it from us in the first half. We must not resort to believing our own press and thinking 4th is secured. It isn’t and the belief that it is will see us lose it. However, in an attacking sense we seem to have our fluency
back. Arshavin’s mere presence has given us a lift, though yesterday was not his best game he dovetails our attack together nicely. Nasri seems to be liberated now that he is not the sole bearer of the creative urn and is beginning to impress his personality on this team. Let’s hope his improved injury record- which can only have helped- is not destroyed by the onorous international break, which really has come at a bad time for us. Bendtner too had another very impressive game, his confidence and decision making has comeon in spades over the last two months as the side around him has performed better. By the time City come around, Fabregas should be back too which makes an in form side an altogether more enticing prospect. Let’s hope internationals do not destroy our rhythm, just as this side has found its soul.LD.