Arsenal squared off against Leeds United yesterday at Elland Road in a replay of their 1-1 draw at Emirates on January 8th. The winner would advance to the 4th Round of the FA Cup against Huddersfield. Arsene Wenger selected an interesting team, leaving out Wilshere, Walcott, van Persie and Fabregas (one of the match commentators referred to it as “the strongest bench I’ve ever heard of”). It is a testament to the strength and depth of this Arsenal side that they were still able to field a dangerous squad filled with quality, pace and talent. This quality and depth is also a testament to the baffling, frustrating nature of supporting this team, what with shocking inconsistent performances such as their 1-0 away loss to Ipswich Town in the Carling Cup semi-finals and the recent drama between Cesc Fabregas and Denilson. In the wake of the Ipswich debacle, I had a bittersweet, Nick Hornby style monologue rattling around my brain about the beckoning of White Hart Lane (I’m still haunted by that 3-2 Spurs come-back victory at Emirates earlier this season), until the Gunners made brutally quick work of the struggling Hammers in the Premier League last weekend. The impact of Robin van Persie’s increasing fitness was readily apparent in that match, as he figured in on all three goals.
Yesterday, the Leeds supporters were in full-throated splendor and it was truly something special to behold. Even after Samir Nasri’s typically sweet finish in the 5th minute gave Arsenal a 1-0 lead, the Leeds crowd stayed raucous, lending their side an immense, intimidating home field advantage. The Gunners actually seemed to absorb and reflect the furious clamor of the crowd back into their play as they attacked with intensity and abandon throughout the first 30 minutes of the match. Marouane Chamakh, Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner misfired on glorious chances before Bacary Sagna’s thunderous strike made it 2-0. It could (and most likely should) have been at least 3-0 Arsenal when Bradley Johnson’s ridiculous shot screamed into the top corner of the net and gave Leeds a lifeline in the 37th minute. This strike was phenomenal and definitely one of the sickest goals I’ve ever seen. Leeds carried the play during early stretches of the second half, but were unable to equalize. Wenger sensed the dangerous shift in momentum and replaced Chamakh (who played well) and Arshavin (who did not) with van Persie and Fabregas in the 71st minute. The double substitution paid immediate dividends, as the two players took control of the match straightaway. A few minutes later, the maligned Bendtner served-up a superlative cross to van Persie who finished brilliantly and removed any doubt from the outcome.
Result: Leeds United v. Arsenal 1-3
A few more random thoughts on Arsenal-
- I wish Nicklas Bendtner would take his carefully considered hair and playing time grumbles to West Ham. His service to van Persie on the last goal was excellent, but with Chamakh and RVP rightfully ahead of him–I don’t see how he gets in the team with any regularity. He couldn’t even manage it when RVP was injured most of the last few months.
- A Russian friend once warned me of the perils regarding highly paid Russian athletes: “You can’t give Russians a lot of money like that…now he’s out there thinking only about cars and women.” To be fair, I’m sure this malady/phenomenon isn’t exclusive or endemic to Russians. We were talking about the, at the time, baffling decline in the play of ex-Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who had just been signed to a huge free-agent deal. I offer this anecdote as one of the only logical explanations for the noticeably steep decline in Andrei Arshavin’s form. I know he was heavily involved in Russia’s successful World Cup bid, and maybe he’s still tired and distracted from that. His quality is undeniable, but there is also no doubt his play has slipped drastically in recent weeks.
- If Fabregas and van Persie can remain healthy and sharp, the upcoming matches against Barca in the Champions League could be classics.