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Mind the Gap!


John
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Mind the Gap!

The gap between the big 4 and Aston Villa became a little less cavernous yesterday.

When Adebayor headed Arsenal’s second I feared this might be another Manchester United like debacle. But, this time after taking a promising lead we got to half time just one goal down and ended the game with eleven players on the pitch. We also gave Martin the opportunity to change things around dramatically for a second half, during which we harried and kept tight on Wenger’s foreign legion to deny them the room they had used to such good affect in the first 45 minutes.

Arsenal were awesome in the first half and very few sides would have lived with their free flowing football. They were stung into a reaction in much the same way that Fergie’s outfit had been by an opening goal from us and their silky skills were something for the likes of us to aspire to. But, in the second half we did what seemed unlikely, we pressed them and had them spending most of the rest of the game camped in their own half. Not often will teams have the better of this Arsenal side for 45 minutes, but we can take some pride from the fact that we did and that they will have come off the field knowing that they had been in a game and feeling they had done well to hold onto all of the points.

So our winning run has come to an end. But, we will not be facing Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool again at Villa Park this season (FA Cup draw permitting) so our goal should now be to stay unbeaten at home for the rest of the season. For me games like the next one against Portsmouth are our 6-pointers. This is a game against one of the teams that will be competing with us for a place between fifth and seventh that should secure a European outing next season. So this becomes a must win or certainly a must not lose game for us and a game that can be the start of another good run.

We may not yet be in a position to challenge the big 4 for a Champions League place. But, a win against Chelsea and unlucky defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, along with some very encouraging away wins of late show that we are now a step above those in our league whose ambition is safety and at best mid-table security. We can now aim for a top 7 finish this season. We can also look to making the type of steady progress that Arsenal have done over the last couple of years although in our case it will be from a mid-table team to a team looking to gate crash the big 4 party rather than from a team who seemed to be at risk of falling back into the pack to one with realistic hopes of winning the league again to break Chelsea and Manchester United’s recent stranglehold on the championship.

My player ratings from what was a great game of football that we played an equal part in are:

Scott Carson - 7 – Pushed an Eboue effort wide on 3 minutes and got his foot to the ball 6 minutes later when Hleb looked ready to pull the trigger inside our box. Did all that was necessary and produced a solid performance in the face of the predictable and wearisome abuse that was directed at him by Arsenal supporters.

Olof Mellberg – 7 – Enters what must be his last month regularly playing out of position and so might present a challenge to Zat’s position in the New Year, if Zat has by then continued to keep our £9m defender on the bench. Clearly does not enjoy this role and is much more fallible here than in the centre of our defence but once again let nobody down yesterday, although a more nimble defender may have got nearer to block Flamini’s goal bound shot. Why did his celebrations not merit a yellow by the way?

Zat Knight – 6 – Needed to be closer to Adebayor for their winner and to get off the ground when the ball came over rather than stand leaden footed without making any sort of challenge for the ball. This blotted an otherwise decent performance against a sharp Arsenal attack that it is difficult to shine against.

Martin Laursen – 8 – Once again the best of our defenders by a country mile and we really do need to get a contract signed as for me there can now be no lingering doubts concerning either his ability or fitness.

Wilfred Bouma – 7 – Another committed performance.

Stiliyan Petrov – 6 – Made a bright start before injury led to his leaving the field on 32 minutes.

Craig Gardner – 7 – The ball was never going anywhere other than in the back of the net when it ran into his path on 12 minutes. A well taken goal but became less prominent in the second half.

Gareth Barry – 7 – Took a while to get into the game and without Reo and then Stiliyan alongside him, Gareth was always going to face an uphill task in matching the Arsenal midfield. But, his contribution in the second half kept us in the game until the very end.

Ashley Young – 7 – Faced a tough challenge from Sagna and early on was not able to give us the penetration out wide that the team have come to expect from him. But, in the second half he turned the tide and showed that he can be more than a challenge for even the best defenders.

John Carew – 8 – MOTM – Excelled in the role as target man to the extent that Arsenal defenders stood back off him in the second half to try to pick up the second ball before our players did as they could not beat him in the air. So unlucky with a perfect header that beat the keeper but thudded against the crossbar rather than into the back of the net with half an hour left and it was his deflected cross that led to our goal.

Gabriel Agbonlahor – 6 – Worked hard but no real sign of threat and made no real impression on the game, I wonder how fit he actually was?

Substitutes:

Shaun Maloney - 7 - Replaced Petrov on 32 minutes and blossomed in the second half to provide a real threat with his jinking runs and willingness to shoot.

Patrik Berger – 6 – Replaced Wilf on 76 minutes in a bold tactical switch, hit a decent low shot near the end but he did not provide what Martin may have been hoping for and may find it easier to make an impression late on against other less accomplished sides.

Up the Villa!

John Lewis

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