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Monday, 8 October 2007

High Noon...

Sunday 7th October, 2007: Arsenal 3 (van Persie [2], Senderos), Sunderland 2 (Wallace, Jones)

England always lets you down...

Not in the Rugby World Cup it doesn't. Neither does France. On Saturday evening Sebastien Chabal stares down the All Black Haka with imperious contempt to inspire a famous French victory after England's forwards had earlier done pretty much the same to the Australian pack. The respective Anglo-French heroics set up a mouthwatering (and most unlikely) semi final in Paris next weekend. There's something about the unfancied or outnumbered hero overcoming insurmountable odds, isn't there? Or have I just been carried away by the Wild West imagery of Eddie Butler's analysis of England's Rugby World Cup:

English rugby went down like a wounded bison on a stinking night in Paris. It flicked its tail against Samoa and Tonga to show it wasn't quite done yet. But how did it rise from the prairie and tear across the plains like this?

All in all, this has already been one of the most exhilarating sporting weekends that I can remember experiencing. So, the pride of the English bison restored, it's almost a relief after all the excitement to leave the brave frontier of the 15 man game and go back to the Emirates for today's anticipated stroll in the park against another bunch of Premier League new boys. But on this form-book shredding weekend, our midday kick off against newly promoted Sunderland ends up feeling far too much for comfort like High Noon.

Ahead of the game, though, even I don't share the pessimism of Andy Dawson from Writing in the Observer's fan's eye view section he says "I reckon they'll probably win about 2-0". I'm far too wary of Sunderland after their opening day rocking of bullish and expectant Spurs to buy into that; especially with their penchant for the late equalising or match pinching goal. But after 14 minutes, Andy Dawson is looking, if anything, somewhat of an optimist. Arsenal have already had the ball in the Sunderland net three times before the quarter of an hour mark.

I've barely taken my seat, having been delayed queuing to have my membership card re-activated by the blackberry-tapping bookmakers' pen of a diligent, orange-coated steward, when Diaby strokes the ball home from outside the box. The goal doesn't stand though; the referee has already blown for the clattering foul from behind that has flattened Fabregas before he can pre-empt Abou's effort and score himself. It's a good job too. Otherwise, we'd all have been deprived of the stunning Robin van Persie free kick that does open the scoring. There's a clean bowled, cricket stump thwack as the ball cannons off the underside of the bar, the well-pummelled sphere still retaining enough momentum despite that heavy contact to shoot back up high into the net before bouncing back to stillness; a spent ace, an unruly mustang finally coralled. The Emirates exhales a collective and involuntary "phwoar".

Arsenal create a raft of other chances before, in the fourteenth minute, the Sunderland defence fails to deal with a corner kick. Diaby kicks a heel out behind him at Adebayor's cross and Senderos, falling back on himself, plants a reaction shot into the turf that somehow passes through the congested six-yard box, looping beyond Craig Gordon and into the net. Arsenal soon find the net again. Adebayor plays Hleb into space on the right flank. Alex's early ball evades Flamini but Diaby is on hand to stroke home again. Once more, the lanky midfielder's effort is ruled out; for offside this time.

"Are you Tottenham in disguise?" sing the cock-a-hoop Emirates majority. It turns out that they are; but not, as we had hoped, the Spurs who could allow themselves to go 4-1 down to Aston Villa on Monday, but instead the team who fought back that night to level the scores. The hugely influential Kelwyn Jones makes a nuisance of himself in the Arsenal box, out-muscling an out of position Clichy only to see his shot parried by Manuel Almunia in the Arsenal goal. But Ross Wallace reacts brilliantly to the rebound, chesting the ball into space to wrongfoot Toure and slotting the ball past the still recovering 'keeper. Sunderland's tail has twitched.

The half time interval seems to have reinvigorated the away side still further. Although Arsenal start the new half purposefully, the second period barely begun, the Black Cats find plenty of space on their left flank to deliver a tempting ball into the box. Once again Clichy finds himself pulled inside and up against Jones. No contest; the scores are levelled at two-two as the Sunderland striker heads home powerfully despite Almunia planting a good hand on the goalbound ball. "Are you Tottenham in disguise?" sing those canny Mackems.

Almost imperceptibly the lunchtime breeze drops a notch or two; it's starting to feel like Wearside in October now. Suddenly, Sunderland look dangerous every time they advance and Arsenal's assertive passing game begins to go awry. The home team digs in though. Toure sees an explosive strike from thirty yards, worthy of Pele, rattle the goal frame with all the righteous force of a wrongly imprisoned man. Eboue comes on for the strangely subdued Sagna; Walcott for Diaby. Hleb shimmies and feints his way to the byline then pulls back an inch perfect pass inviting Walcott to slam the ball home. The youngster's overkeen though and misses the ball completely, ending up in a cork-screwed heap on the floor. Arsenal still nearly score from the move; the ball patiently worked to van Persie in the D only for the Dutchman to shoot well wide.

You feel Arsenal are bound to score, but they've frustrated like this so many times before that such confidence is beginning to seem fanciful. Until, with about ten minutes left to play, Eboue plays a ball into the box that seems to be behind the run of Walcott. Undeterred, the youngster, who has for once made a genuine impact coming off the bench, flicks it into space on his right and spins off his marker. He plays an incisive first time pass too close to van Persie. But RVP's on fire today and his first touch with his left is perfect. There's barely a break of stride before his next, a dismissive flick of the same foot, steers the ball, by way of Gordon's flailing hand, into the bottom corner.

There's still enough life left in the Sunderland beast for ex-Arsenal trainee Anthony Stokes to force Almunia to tip a dipping drive over the bar. The gunners' 'keeper has to come out bravely to half thwart Jones before the striker places his team's last effort wide of the far post. McShane does his best to write our hero, Hleb, out of the next few chapters of The Road to Moscow, earning himself a straight red card in the process. He goes through with both feet, studs up, on the prone Alex, catching him a nasty clout on the Belarussian bollocks. "Just like your manager", the Emirs of the Emirates serenade their northern guests. But Alex is, as has been previously noted, made of steel so he's still full of running, easily shaking off the goolie gouging, looking brave and strong and on his mettle; made of metal. Bison. Prairies. McShane. High Noon. Bad tackles. Wedding tackle...Do not forsake me, oh my darling; there's got to be a Gary Cooper joke in there somewhere.

The Arsenal players keep the huddle brief; relieved, no doubt, to have stretched their winning sequence to ten games. The crowd chants "Theo, Theo, Theo" as the team leaves the field. They may have made hard work of it, but the young matadors have seen off the beast. Another two week ceasefire looms. Back to England and the eighties. Then Estonia. Then a dry run to Moscow, ahead of the final there in May.

L.U.V. on y'all,


Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!

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