Artful Arshavin off the mark as Gunners find their range
Arsenal 4 Blackburn Rovers 0
Sunday 15 March 2009
Sam Allardyce prepared for this game by putting his players into the deep freeze. By the final whistle he must have wished he had left them there. Two more injuries had been acquired, to add to an already wounded squad, and four goals were shipped, damaging both the goals-against column and his players' confidence.
Arsène Wenger can sympathise. An unfortunate run of injuries, and subsequent crisis of confidence, wrecked his team's title challenge but the players are coming back, and so is the belief. Arsenal remain in two cup competitions and, with this win, eased their way back into the Champions' League qualifying places for the first time in 2009. Although Aston Villa can regain fourth place today the Gunners look to have found an ominous vein of form.
They have also found a player. Andrey Arshavin overcame the half-time insertion of four stitches into an open ankle wound to orchestrate the second-half slicing up of Rovers, and adorn it with a glorious goal.
The Russian international has been on an intensive fitness programme since squeezing through the transfer window and his new sharpness, allied to the return of Theo Walcott, was too much for Rovers. Having forced a second-minute own goal from Andre Ooijer, Arshavin settled the match soon after the hour mark. The substitute Emmanuel Eboué struck twice in the final three minutes.
Late goals can be flattering. In this case they reflected the balance of the match, and more scores would have arrived earlier but for the finishing of Nicklas Bendtner. "The pressure came off the team after [beating] Roma," said Wenger. "We played with more freedom. We are on a long, consistent run now. That's why I believe this team can go from strength to strength at the end of this season."
Allardyce said: "When you come here you need all your best players available; we did not, and we were not good enough. We have been beaten comprehensively. But the three points at Fulham was critical, so perhaps we can overcome this." Following that midweek win Allardyce had given his players the dubious reward of a stay at a health farm, with treatment including time in a cryotherapy unit. Dressed in little more than knee-high socks, gloves and a ski mask, they were sent into a temperature of -125C. The theory is that it speeds muscle recovery, but to judge from the opening 74 seconds it simply slowed reflexes.
That was how long it took for Ars-enal to take the lead. Bendtner played a pass inside Gaël Givet, Walcott sped on to the ball and his cross rebounded in off Ooijer. Rovers, already without the injured Ryan Nelsen and Roque Santa Cruz, were staring down the barrel, none more so than Givet, who had passed a fitness test but was clearly not fit enough to handle Walcott.
Rovers should have been in even greater trouble midway through the half after El-Hadji Diouf lunged at Manuel Almunia and was fortunate just to be booked. "It was a silly challenge," admitted Allardyce.
Arsenal were in control, but with Bendtner missing chances, Samir Nasri hitting the bar from a free-kick and Paul Robinson making excellent saves from Nasri and Walcott, they struggled to kill the game off.
Thus there was relief as well as joy when Arshavin took a pass from Denilson and drove into the box. Having sent Danny Simpson the wrong way with a shake of the hips he whipped a shot into the roof of the net. Bendtner, after another miss, was withdrawn.
His replacement, Carlos Vela, picked out Arshavin, whose saved shot was followed up by Eboué; then Martin Olsson tripped the Mexican and Eboué scored from the spot. Cue the PA playing Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" as Arsenal climbed back to fourth.
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