A functional performance

Blackburn Rovers 0-1 Arsenal

Robin van Persie (43)

The Rovers: Brad Freidel - Ryan Nelsen, Dominic Matteo (Nils-Eric Johansson 42), Andy Todd (Kerimoglu Tugay 45), Lucas Neill - Aaron Mokoena - Morten Gamst Pedersen, Steven Reid, Garry Flitcroft (Brett Emerton 60), David Thompson - Paul Dickov. Subs not used: Peter Enckleman (GK), Jonathan Stead.

The Gunners: Jens Lehmann - Ashley Cole, Philippe Senderos, Kolo Abib Toure, Lauren Bisan-Etane - Gael Clichy, Mathieu Flamini, Patrick Vieira, Francesc Fabregas Soler - Robin van Persie - Jose Antonio Reyes. Subs not used: Stuart Taylor (GK), Emmanuel Eboue, Pascal Cygan, Fredrik Ljungberg, Quincy Owusu-Abeyie.

Well, this is certainly not one of those matches that will attain "save until manually deleted" status on your Tivo, now was it? That said, it was still heartening to see a makeshift Arsenal team comfortably fend off a side that we're going to be facing in the semifinal of the FA Cup not too long from now. Fredrik Ljungberg was originally going to start, but took a knock in the warmups. Replacing him was young Robin van Persie, last seen taking a real bollocking from Le Boss for getting sent off in the Southampton game. Admittedly, I wasn't thrilled about those turn of events at the time.

From the opening kickoff, Blackburn started especially brightly...they were always going to be up for this one. But, with the newfound strength shown from Arsenal's backline these days (and man, is Senderos ever a big reason for that), there weren't any serious questions asked of Jens Lehmann early on. Arsenal settled into the game within the first five minutes, and started to look more comfortable. Even this early, tackles were flying from all over the place, but it stayed clean in the early going.

The first half-chance came to Arsenal in the 11th minute. Flamini sent a long ball into the area, and Brad Friedel uncharacteristically hesitated before coming in to claim it. That allowed van Persie to rush in and nick it away from him. Unfortunately, his first touch failed him, and he ended up at too sharp an angle for anyone other than Henry to score. Still, shades of things to come from the young Dutchman. Blackburn were enjoying much of the possession though, and began to win themselves a few set pieces. Lehmann first was up to the task of punching out a deep throw-in by the excellent Pedersen, and then Rovers wasted a corner by taking it short. Honestly, with Arsenal being suspect on crosses and corners all season, why on Earth would you ever take it short?

Not only did Rovers pack the midfield (like most sides do against us these days), but they also played a tireless pressing game, and it really threw Arsenal out of their rhythm for much of the first half. While many teams can't keep that up over the full 90, Mark Hughes' men ended up being up to that task. He's got them fit and ready to go, you have to give him that. So, the first half crawled along in the same fashion -- Blackburn had the lion's share of possession, but couldn't seriously breach the Arsenal back line...Senderos leading the way with an immense performance yet again. Every so often, the guys in red would venture up the field, but the Blackburn backline has been quite improved in recent days themselves. The two wingbacks, Nelsen and Neill, played particularly well for them (Nelsen's performance gives me a bit of pride being an MLS fan...he may have been on the DC Scum, but the DC Scum are still in OUR league). Most of Arsenal's attacks were easily rebuffed, but van Persie and Clichy always looked like they could create something. That said, it was quite obvious just how much this team misses Thierry Henry when he's not around.

Clichy, though, was impressively skinned by David Thompson in the 26th minute. He hooked his shot past the near post (and Lehmann looked to have it covered anyway), but it was one of their best chances of the first half. Kolo Toure responded with a cheeky shot from well outside the area, but the backpedalling Freidel ended up making an easy save out of it. But, Rovers countered right back, with Pedersen's wicked corner actually ending up as a shot on target...Lehmann had to do spectacularly well to palm it out of danger. Sensing a possible chink in the red-and-white armor, Steven Reid embarked on a scything run down the right side. He easily turned Ashley Cole, then sent in one of the nicest crosses I've seen in ages to Pedersen. The young Norwegian got all of it with his header, but luckily, Lehmann was equal to the task. Just minutes later, Blackburn was again knocking on the door. For about the four millionth time in the last few matches, Toure fouled his man when going up for a header. Thankfully, Reid sent the resulting free kick into orbit.

After that spell of pressure, Arsenal managed to get the match back to its normal rhythm. It looked for all the world like the teams would be heading into the dressing rooms knotted at 0-0, and to be honest, I would have taken it. But, luckily for us, van Persie was having none of it. Cole got the ball in what seemed like just another Arsenal attack. But, he whipped a low centering pass in to van Persie, whose unbelievable one-touch turn took him past both central defenders. Freidel was all alone, but still looked like he had a chance to block with his legs. But, van Persie wonderfully dragged the ball into open space, rounded Freidel, and tapped it into the empty net. Just a magical, magical finish...very Bergkamp-esque, if I may say so.

With one goal in the bank, I figured Arsenal would be a good bet to extend the lead and easily see off Rovers in the second half. Of course, if the Gunners converted a few of the chances they were to get in the second half, then that's exactly what would have happened. But, you have to give Rovers a ton of credit as well...they are nowhere near as bad as they were in the beginning of the season.

That said, Arsenal should have been 2-0 up just 20 seconds after the restart. Fabregas' bombing run down the right-hand side caught Blackburn napping, and his one-two with Lauren opened up even more space. Cesc cut into the center, drawing the defense with him. He then sent a beautiful lateral pass over to the wide-open Reyes, whose scuffed shot could have been saved by your grandmother, let alone one of the better goalkeepers in the Premiership. It was a disgraceful miss, really. Fabregas skied his shot on the resulting corner, but the effects were still felt by Blackburn. Unlike the opening of the first half, which they dominated, Rovers ended up having an extremely shaky ten minutes or so. Freidel accidentally took the ball over the line for a corner, Lucas Neill lost the ball in front of his own goal (Freidel mopped that up well, though)...with our first XI on the pitch, we probably would have stuck home another goal or two in this time.

Arsenal did keep up the pressure, though. Cole's dive in the box was not called by Graham Poll (who did a very good job calling a game that went from "scrappy" to "violent" by the end). But, the ball did come out to Flamini, who sent a rocket of a shot that deflected out for a corner. It came to nothing, but it was nice to see us press the advantage and at least try to kill off the game. Another chance came with a free kick just outside the Blackburn area (created by the pace and flair of van Persie). Oddly, though, Kolo Toure was the one to take it, and it went straight into the wall. Oh, well.

Just as odd was the fact that Blackburn's third substitution was made in just the 60th minute or so, and none of the three were for their other striker, Jonathan Stead. I can understand flooding the midfield against Arsenal and all, but when you're trailing at home, after a certain point, you can't have just one striker having to fend for himself out there. Amusingly, the announcers 10 minutes later were discussing whether Hughes would bring Stead on...well, jackasses, not unless Wenger decided to let them have some of our substitions (it's not like he uses them anyway half the time).

Blackburn still had much of the ball, but now all the chances were coming to the Arsenal. Some lovely short passing unlocked the Rovers defence, and van Persie found himself open in the area. He got everything behind his left-footed effort, but it cruelly met the crossbar instead of the top corner netting. Hell of a shot, though. It was right around this time (the 68th minute or so) where the match started to get a little ugly. The previously-clean tackles were getting a little dirtier, and Rovers were the main culprits. However, the Arsenal players didn't help their cause with some of the most shameful acting since "Gigli". In a way, I can understand the Rovers fans' frustrations. And, to be honest, if Poll had booked one or two of our guys (Reyes especially) for it, we really wouldn't have had much room to complain.

Very little of interest in the remainder (and I have other things to do today, including watch the USA kick some Honduras ass), so bullet points:

-- Paul Dickov is a prick. Poll cautioned him for his persistent dissent, and if he had sent him off towards the end, he would have been completely justified.

-- Steven Reid is a violent little psychopath, isn't he?

-- Brett Emerton has a decent chance to score in the 83rd, but Cole recovered pretty well to cut off his path into the center. Emerton was still wide-open, but he had to shoot from an angle, and ended up missing. If he was able to cut into the center, he probably would have scored (at the very least, he would have had a much better chance).

-- The announcers (who really got on my tits for the whole 90 minutes) were saying that they had inside sources that said "It is 99% certain that Cole will be in West London next season"). The Sun doesn't count as an inside source, you twats.

-- Oddly, there was supposed to be 5 minutes of stoppage time (for what, I honestly have no idea). In the 95th, Dickov's pass found Reid, who had all the space in the world thanks to Toure taking himself out of the play with a terrible lunge. Reid took it early, and his bouncing shot went wide of Lehmann's post. That was their chance, right there.

-- It ended up being six and a half (!) minutes of injury time. In the 96th, Reyes was pushed in the chest by Nelsen, and he ended up getting Nelsen booked by crumpling to the ground, clutching his face. An Arsenal player should be above that kind of Croatia-and-Porto bullshit. I'm one of the many who wants to see him fuck off back to Spain already, but unlike many, it's not because he's in a slump or because of the prank phone call thing. I want this little bastard gone because of shit like that.

So, 3 points won, but unfortunately, the Red Scum and the Blue Scum won their matches as well. Sigh. Still in the running for second place, though.

I may have something in the way of a report for USA-Honduras later on tonight. Stop on by if you're interested.


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