Thursday, July 18, 2024

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Arshavin shows promise but Arsenal still can't score

Last Saturday I managed to get myself up to the Emirates stadium for Arsenal's league match with Sunderland. Despite the recent lack of wins for the Gunners, there was an air of excitement and anticipation, nearly all of which was attributed to the eagerness of witnessing the debut of Andrei Arshavin, and some of which was fuelled by a few ales at Finsbury Park before the game.

After one of the most protracted transfer affairs ever seen, the wait to finally see Arshavin play for Arsenal has been one that required the patience of a saint. This was to be his first professional game of football since the Russian domestic league ended in November, and on that basis the fans needed to be realistic to avoid pinning all their hopes on him so soon after his £15million club record move.





As it turned out though, Arshavin was just as keen as the fans to live up to his growing reputation - I myself must admit to being carried away with the moniker given to him as the 'Russian Maradona'. Of course there have been very few players that really could be described as anywhere near the combative Argentinean legend, but Arshavin showed glimpses of why his style as well as his stature has been likened to Maradona's.

Within the first five minutes of the game Arshavin gave evidence of his willingness to take on players and hone in on goal. He picked up a loose ball and after a couple of touches he lined up with his right foot and sent a low hard drive no more than a foot past the Sunderland post. After this he continued to roam the final third of the pitch, he'd started on the right of midfield but was often swapping positions with Samir Nasri who started the game on the left wing.

Arshavin was eager and confident with the ball at his feet and his way of popping up behind the strikers and on either side of the wings is an exciting prospect. Arsene Wenger has been criticised in some quarters for having not invested during the transfer window aside from Arshavin. The search for a replacement in the style of Giberto Silva or Mathieu Flamini is considered as ongoing, and the need for a new central defender is also oft-mentioned.

In reality Arsenal's defence has been greatly improved to the point of being almost impenetrable recently. William Gallas has become solid and assured again since he lost the captaincy, and alongside him Kolo Toure has demonstrated why Wenger rejected any overtures for him from Manchester City. Arsenal also have an improving Johan Djourou to rely on now, and the proof is in that this year so far only three goals have been conceded in all competitions, amounting to nine games.

As far as the defensive midfield option goes, there are still some concerns over who is best in that position. Obviously Fabregas will slot in to central midfield again when he returns from injury, but Alex Song has not entirely convinced as the one to partner him there. On Saturday he was the weakest link in the team, too many passes went astray and good positions were wasted. He is a good player but the fans are more and more convinced by the Viera-like qualities of Abou Diaby, who just needs to slightly rein in his attacking sentiments.

As for the rest of the game with Sunderland, Arshavin again almost scored in the first twenty minutes. This time he demonstrated how he is very capable with both feet after receiving the ball on the right-hand side of Sunderland's penalty area. He snubbed any sentiment that Arsenal sometimes have for another pass and instead cut in toward the outside of the penalty area and released a curling shot with his left foot. The Sunderland 'keeper Marton Fulop reacted with a very decent save to deny the debutant a fine goal.

Moments before this Robin Van Persie had very nearly and really should have put Arsenal ahead. He surged into the left side of the Sunderland penalty box and with Fulop approaching he chipped the ball over the goalkeeper, it appeared destined for the net but instead caused confusion when it grazed the woodwork and deflected sideways and out for a goal-kick.

These were the clearest opportunities for Arsenal in the first half as they continued to press Sunderland. The visitors meanwhile gave the home fans a couple of moments to hold their breath, utilising the counter-attack Anton Ferdinand of all people was the most forward Sunderland player for one. Thankfully his half-volley from twenty yards was punched away by Almunia.

The Arsenal goalkeeper had to be alert again from another Sunderland counter-attack when Dean Whitehead got through Arsenal's defence. His shot was well-struck but equally well-saved by Almunia. Meanwhile Arsenal almost broke the deadlock before half-time and again it involved Andrei Arshavin, this time he flew down the right byline and chipped in a cross from deep. It found Nicklas Bendtner perfectly and his header was controlled well and seemed sure to find the net, but Fulop once more made a good save low and tipped it out for a corner.

The game was increasingly Arsenal's as it wore on in the second period, more and more possession was held by the home team but unlike the first half there were very few clear-cut opportunities. Likewise Arshavin was less-effective in the second half, his lack of fitness became more apparent as at times he was left to stroll around rather than run. Soon after the hour-mark he was replaced by Carlos Vela and deservedly took a round of applause, with some of the crowd on their feet.

It was to be Carlos Vela who then had the best of the goal-scoring chances as the game continued, on two occasions he was played in within fifteen yards of Sunderland's goal. Unfortunately he was unable to recreate some of his stunning Carling Cup goals and was found wanting as both shots went far wide, somewhat summing up Arsenal's day overall.

In the final minutes there was inevitably a more frenetic pace from Arsenal but it turned out to be too little too late. Both William Gallas and more importantly Van Persie had chances to win the game, but a scuffed shot and a comfortable save put paid to those. Unbelievably it was Arsenal's third 0-0 in a row in the Premiership, the team is still unbeaten in twelve league games and so still very difficult to beat as always, but for now the free-flowing football is failing to hit the net.

It has to be said that judging by Arsenal's recent lack of goals but at the same time their stubborn defence, Wenger may well have proven how we do in fact really need some extra firepower in the Arsenal attack. Arshavin's debut was very promising indeed and I can see him becoming a fan favourite, his style and awareness in attack is a tantalising feature and may just be what's needed to give the likes of Van Persie more freedom of their own to create.

As for what the remaining months of the season hold for Arsenal, I still feel that the team is very close to success and that the FA Cup holds a realistic chance of ending the trophy 'drought'. Injuries are used as excuses all the time but Arsenal have lost many important first-team players in the last few months. With the impending returns of Fabregas, Walcott, Eduardo (again), Rosicky and Adebayor, these are several reasons alone to be optimistic.

Arsenal have proven that on their day they can still beat the best, the victories over Chelsea and Manchester Utd this season (and last) prove that. Any fans booing after the game with Sunderland should take a reality check and realise how good the team still is rather than jumping on any misguided bandwagons. For now we are a very dangerous 'cup team', but in order to regain the staying-power for a new assault on the Premier League, Arsenal must follow the example of Arshavin on Saturday and grab the bull by the horns.

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