Encouraging signs

Aston Villa 1-3 Arsenal

Fredrik Ljungberg - 10'
Thierry Henry - 14'
Ashley Cole - 28'
Juan Pablo Angel - 74'

The lineups:

The Gunners: Jens Lehmann -- Ashley Cole, Pascal Cygan, Philippe Senderos, Lauren Bisane-Etane -- Jose Antonio Reyes (Francesc Fabregas Soler 82), Edu (Mathieu Flamini 74), Patrick Vieira, Fredrik Ljungberg - Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp (Robert Pires 74). Subs not used: Manuel Almunia (GK), Justin Hoyte

The Villains: Thomas Sorenson -- J'Lloyd Samuel, Liam Ridgewell, Olof Mellberg, Gareth Barry -- Ulises de la Cruz (Thomas Hitzlsperger 62), Steven Davis, Eric Djemba-Djemba (Mathieu Berson 66), Nolberto Solano -- Luke Moore, Juan Pablo Angel. Subs not used: Stefan Postma (GK), Martin Laursen, Carlton Cole.

Well, this is more like it, right? Not only is my internet back up and running (and it should be for good this time), the Arsenal come back from that soul-crushing defeat to really turn over a pretty decent team...and on their own patch, to boot!

As I said in my last entry, even I have to admit that we have no realistic aspirations to the Premier League title at this point in the proceedings. Those who know me (or who post with me at the Arseblog forums) know that I'm about the most positive and optimistic person possible when it comes to Arsenal (or Celtic, or USA rugby, or the Montreal Canadiens ice hockey team, etc etc etc). So, I was probably the last to concede (although I do note that I conceded right around the same time as Monsieur Wenger). However, a performance like this is still of the utmost importance. If the boys can turn themselves back into Mega Arsenal, then there is still a very good chance at winning the Champions' League and the FA Cup, as well as attaining second place in the Premiership. All of these are worthy goals, as is the simple fact that the famous Arsenal spirit must be maintained as well.

And, if you were looking for spirit, it came in droves for this game. Just before my internet went out again, I read some of the usual bullshit from the doom-and-gloom merchants, especially when faced with the prospect of a central defense partnership of Pascal Cygan and Justin Hoyte (who is a natural right back). While everyone's least favorite shambling automaton actually did play, Philippe Senderos passed a late fitness test, enabling the young Swiss fullback to slot in alongside him. Reyes was preferred to Pires on the left wing, and the recently rejuvenated Dennis Bergkamp partnering Henry up top.

Right from the kick-off, Arsenal swarmed forward just like the dominant marauders of the first few matches. Time and again, they scythed through the Villa defense with purpose. Whereas the Newcastle match showed the larval stages of the old Arsenal game coming back, this match was more the pupil stage. If you took away some absolutely woeful finishing, the lads could have very easily put 6 or 7 past one of the best goalkeepers in the Premiership. Interestingly, Villa actually seemed OK for the first 5 or 6 minutes, but once Arsenal were comfortable with the flow of the match, they just flicked the on-switch. If anyone in this age knows what it must have been like to man a castle wall as thousands of Vikings or Huns approached, Thomas Sorenson would be the guy. First, he had to do especially well to save off the foot of Bergkamp, and then he was a spectator as Vieira blazed over the bar, despite the yawning mass of empty net in front of him. Truly a shocking miss, that one. Anyway, the inevitable happened in the tenth minute, as Arsenal's true unsung hero got on the scoresheet. Edu (who had a wonderful game) found Freddie Ljungberg on the end of a mid-range through ball, and the Swede cooly chipped the ball over the onrushing Sorensen. One-Nil to the Arsenal!

Four minutes later, the lead was doubled...this time, Ljungberg the creator. His pass found Thierry Henry, who had earlier missed an absolutely glaring chance to pick up his first goal in ages (by his standards, anyway). This time, Henry made no mistake, firing a rocket past Sorensen. The funny thing was, of the three great chances he had, the only one he scored on was the most difficult...the strike coming across the face of goal, and from an harshly acute angle at that. It will likely be forgotten in the wake of this dominating performance, but Jens Lehmann welcomed his recall to the side by flying headlong out of his net to double-punch away a dangerous cross. That chance, coming somewhere around the 20th minute or so, was Aston Villa's one real opportunity to halt the momentum and get themselves back into the game.

Shortly afterwards, Arsenal closed the book on Villa (and their European hopes, most likely) with a goal that was breathtaking in its mastery and execution. Just like the Arsenal of old, they began by foiling a Villa attack deep in their end. After that, it's all one touch, one touch, one touch, all the way up the park. Henry ended up with it at the midfield line, over on the right-hand side. He beat three defenders, cut inside, and whipped the ball towards Bergkamp. The Dutchman (who I may have been wrong about after all), used his knee to flick the ball into the path of Ashley Cole, who was streaking towards the penalty area. In an absolutely ridiculous display of skill and panache, Cole never let the ball touch the ground...he simply hit a volley from the heavens towards the top corner. All Sorensen could so was stand there, as dumbfounded as those watching in their living rooms. What a brilliant, magical goal...real "running out of superlatives" stuff.

After that, Arsenal kept creating chances, but they didn't seem all that interested in actually converting them...it was more to keep themselves occupied and run out the clock more than anything else. With the three points won, I think they were as aware as anyone else that there are bigger games coming up on the horizon, games that have a somewhat Bavarian flavor to them shall we say. To Villa's credit, they did pull one back late in the second half when Angel rounded off a nice team effort by firing past Lehmann from the edge of the penalty area. No chance for our goalkeeper, who had a decent afternoon otherwise. I have to tell you, I was a proponent of giving Almunia a run in the side. I defended it when Wenger did it, and I defend it now. To castigate Wenger for it after the fact is gutless...the type of shit we could expect from Lily White Scum supporters. Wenger is a gambler...I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. He gambled on Almunia and he ended up losing. Thing of it this way -- he gambled on Anelka (who did well when he was here, and ended up netting us some 20-something million euros when Real Madrid bought him). he gambled on Kolo Toure, he gambled on Patrick Vieira, he gambled on Thierry Henry, for fuck's sake! He gambled on Freddie Ljungberg (no, really, who had heard of him before he came to Arsenal?). He gambled on Cesc Fabregas early on this season. Those turned out all right, didn't they? So, Almunia didn't. Oh well. Now it's clear that we have to get Timo Hildebrand or Sebastien Frey or someone similar in the offseason. If Almunia had panned out, then hey, that's 10 million or so that we didn't have to spend this offseason.

But I digress.

Other than the goal (and a period of a few minutes before and after it), Villa never really looked like scoring. Cygan didn't have his best effort (with all that entails), but Senderos actually looked very good for an inexperienced kid who was supposed to be out with a knee injury. He made some big challenges, especially in that brief period when Villa was threatening. The main thing that the team can take away from this, besides keeping pace with the Manchester scum that is, is the fact that all of our key players seem to be rounding back into form at just the right time. If we play like this, we're going to kick the shit out of Munich.

The international break is coming up, which I'm actually relishing. On this side of the pond, the United States is kicking off the final group phase of our qualification with a trip to Port-of-Spain. We have quite the history with Trinidad and Tobago -- in 1989, Trinidad needed one point at home against us in the final game of qualification to book their trip to Italia '90. Paul Caliguri's header, however, booked our trip at their expense. Also, my manager at work is from Trinidad, so there is also some inter-office rivalry riding on this one as well. Anyway, I digress again. Our next match is at home to Crystal Palace, who are in far worse form than when they held us to that draw in Selhurst Park. The FA Cup match against First Division opposition (be it West Ham or Sheffield United) comes next, and then it's Bayern Munich away after that, with our trip to reeling Southampton following. To me, this seems like the perfect setting for us to get the Arsenal machine going again.

I'm still optimistic, if not for the league.


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