Cardiff was once a place where angels feared to tread. The locals had long memories, a cherished sense of identity and a tradition of tribal ferocity. Aaron Ramsey turned them into a bunch of pussycats yesterday with the ease with which he has helped establish Arsenal as credible champions.
He scored twice, pointedly refused to celebrate and received due reward for his exaggerated respect. The home crowd chanted “There’s only one Aaron Ramsey” and he responded by beating his head in the approved Ayatollah manner. That he had sent Arsenal seven points clear in the Premier League at the expense of his former club was overlooked. His performance generated a perverse pride, despite its implications for a Cardiff side restricted to a 15-minute second-half rally.
Even Malky Mackay, Cardiff’s manager, recognised the significance of the homage paid to the club’s youngest player, who is being mentioned in the same breath as Gareth Bale as a Welsh sporting icon. “Our fans are a class act,” he said. “They are very passionate people but he is one of their own. It was only right they should show their appreciation.”
Arsène Wenger, too, was full of praise for the Cardiff fans, and when asked to compare Ramsey with Bale did not demur: “He can defend, attack and score goals. What more do you want? Remember he is still young. He can develop still further.”
Cardiff City would hope to do the same. But this a team saddled with the burdens of nationhood. Just to make the point, the public-address announcer welcomed the teams by yelling: “From the capital city of England, Arsenal, and from the capital city of Wales, your team, Cardiff City.”
Cue canned male-voice choirs and a sense of belonging that failed to survive a glance at the directors’ box, which was a mirror of modern football culture. Owner Vincent Tan, a faintly preposterous figure in red replica shirt worn over a long- collared dress shirt, sat alongside Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive and Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader.
Ramsey dominated a bitter-sweet day, which began with a generous round of applause during the warm-up and ended with a throaty cheer on the way to the exits.
Jack Wilshere who scored after 32 seconds in the Champions’ League in midweek, was again on the early shift. Only 68 seconds had elapsed when his shot beat David Marshall, only to rebound to safety off the angle of crossbar and upright.
The suspicion that Olivier Giroud lacks the requisite predatory instincts hardened in a bizarre 15th-minute incident when, wrongly adjudged onside, he simply stopped playing and allowed Steven Caulker to get back to clear.
Wenger, as flabbergasted at the schoolboy error as anyone, had cause to be grateful for Ramsey’s burgeoning ability to contribute all types of goals when Arsenal took an overdue lead in the 29th minute. Mesut Özil’s ball into the box was driven in at daunting pace, but Ramsey shaped his scoring header with telling accuracy and agility.
Usually scorers wheel away in a brief burst of adrenaline-fuelled euphoria, but Ramsey remained with his arms by his side and seemed embarrassed by the congratulatory scrum in which he was consumed. The crowd recognised his discomfort with a round of applause as unexpected as it was edifying.
Cardiff’s brief burst of retaliatory pressure faded away once Frazier Campbell’s downward header was repelled by a strong right-handed save by Wojciech Szczesny. It was an entirely different game, in terms of atmosphere and anticipation, to the matches against the Manchester giants, which yielded Cardiff four points. The underdog howl was replaced by a murmur of resignation and unabashed admiration.
The love-in intensified in added time with Ramsey’s second goal, his 15th of a breakthrough season for club and country. He launched Theo Walcott on the counter-attack and continued his run to be in the perfect position to receive the return ball. His shot into the top corner was emphatic, and reflected the nature of the collective performance.
Arsenal had effectively made the game safe four minutes from the end of normal time, when substitute Mathieu Flamini, playing with his sleeves artfully rolled up, scored his first goal for the club since January 2008 with a similarly decisive driven shot.
“Nobody could have imagined the situation we find ourselves in when we lost our first game” Wenger admitted. “Every win makes us stronger, but we have to keep a level of urgency, because things change quickly when you relax.”
Mackay was less cautious when asked whether Arsenal can win their first title in nine years : “ Where are they in the table? First. It’s not rocket science, is it?”
Cardiff City (4-1-4-1): Marshall; Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner, Taylor (Cornelius, 87); Medel; Cowie, Mutch, Whittingham, Kim (Noone, 74); Campbell (Odemwingie, 64).
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Ramsey; Cazorla (Flamini, 76), Wilshere (Monreal, 80), Özil (Walcott, 89); Giroud.
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the Match: Aaron Ramsey
Match rating: 7/10