Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Back in the big-time: 2010 could be a great year: Match reports

It's the small things that count. Five years down the line, Arsenal fans may well still be celebrating the time Fergie said he was too busy and let Gary Neville show Aaron Ramsey around the training ground. Or, perhaps more importantly, how Arsene Wenger flew Ramsey and his parents out to Euro 2008 and explained the benefits of little Aaron signing for Arsenal. Last season, Ramsey was a bit-part player - I saw him excel on one particular performance for the reserves but although he scored a nice goal away at Fenerbache, he didn't play a great role in the team.

Yesterday's Times claimed that Ramsey had already played 24 matches this season and while at first this seemed implausible, it really is true. It is no co-incidence that in this period we have witnessed a significant improvement in Ramsey. Potential is all very well - and it's something Arsenal fans have had to put up with for the last few years - but reality is even better. And there is no arguing about the quality that Ramsey displays. In the ilk of a Gerrard or a Lampard, rather than a Fabregas or a Xavi, he will one day be the fulcrum of our side.

The reality which we have wanted to see from our young players, was shown in abundance by Ramsey, both against Portsmouth and against West Ham. Credit to, to Alex Song: his performances this season have been so good that brilliance has come to be expected. Consistently, the Cameroonian shields our defence and with him having jetted off to the African Cup of Nations (that definitely is grammatically incorrect) it remains to be seen how the team will cope. Denilson is a much under-rated player but whether he can do the same job that Song has done, remains to be seen; having said that, I cannot see either Diaby or Nasri doing a better job than the Brazilian so it probably should be him.

At Fratton Park, we appeared like a team which truly could challenge for the League: a couple of goals in each half, the Nadir being when Belhadj scored (geddit?), but that aside it was a very professional performance. It showed authority and quality, without several key players and without having to hit top gear. An interesting point of contrast is that almost exactly two years before, we had gone to Fratton Park and drawn 0-0. What undermined our last serious title challenge was too many draws. We may have lost a few more games this season, but so has everyone and crucially, when you score goals three and four, you put the game beyond the reach of your opponents. For a team like Chelsea, this is less important. But twice this season we have played Pompey, and twice we have conceded sloppy goals; the reason six points have still been forthcoming is because we are banging the goals in. And that really is the point: against better teams, conceding sloppy goals will come back to haunt us; but at the moment, it is difficult to be churlish. At the end of November, this season was going nowhere; but a brilliant December has given us a winning habit and left us right in the mix for the title. Undoubtedly, we need to concede a few less goals, but whilst we're winning games, we may have to settle for that.

Perhaps the biggest worry is that whilst the flows of goals will surely dry up at some point, there is no reason to believe the opposition will stop scoring: it is difficult to win trophies without goals from your strikers. But as they are still coming, and we're clearly in the market for a striker, there's no use in complaining. It looks like we are going to pre-empt the problem so why moan when nothing has gone wrong as of yet? 2010 could be a great year and it looks like we need to sign players to make it so. But when Arsene is making pronouncements about being in the market, as fans it is difficult to get restless.

It's the same with the West Ham match. In the days leading up to it, there was much worry that Wenger would 'throw' the match as he didn't care about the FA Cup. But as long as we win the match, there is nothing to complain about. And that's exactly what happened at Upton Park: having won through to the next round, playing a weakened team looks like the correct decision.

The point was though, was that it was approached in a sensible manner: okay Vela, Wilshere and Merida played; but so did Vermaelen, Gallas and Sagna. Rather than just playing the seconds, it was a team with some steel at the back. What's more, there were strong substitutes available which changed the game. Diaby and Nasri came on and you could sense almost immediately how the game changed. Perhaps the first goal was a little scruffy - but it had been coming. And the second was a beautiful header which will hopefully give Eduardo some confidence back. At Upton Park, far too many people had been criticising him and the way he silenced the doubters was brilliant. The chutzpah of some to point out he still couldn't shoot with his feet was staggering.

With a place in the 4th round of the FA Cup secure (although away at the Britannia would not have been my first choice...) and us just four points off the top of the League - with the perennial game in hand to be played tomorrow, barring snow, it is an exciting time to be a Gooner.

Here's to a happy 2010.

Keep the faith,

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