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Fàbregas and Nasri provide the spark as Arsenal give Birmingham the blues

Birmingham City 0 Arsenal 3

van Persie 13, Nasri 58. Johnson (og) 66

A free kick by Robin van Persie and two moments of magic orchestrated by the one-two combination of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri led to a surprisingly easy win at St Andrew’s as Arsenal kept Manchester United and Manchester City firmly in their sights at the top of the Premier League table.

As the old truism says, this was exactly the kind of game which championship-winning clubs find a way to win – away from home on a cold, wet winter’s evening against a strong and committed side, and with the added pressure of knowing your nearest rivals have already won earlier in the day. It is the sort of game the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2003/04 – Arsenal’s last title-winning team – won with regularity. That side had a physical steel to go with their artistry; this year’s edition are no push-overs physically, but tend to rely more on guile than strength. But do not underestimate their ability to dig deep mentally on nights such as this and stand toe-to-toe with even the most robust of opponents.

With captain Fàbregas available again after serving a one-match suspension, Arsène Wenger reverted to the same lineup which started Monday’s win over Chelsea:

Fabiański

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Fàbregas

Walcott – van Persie – Nasri

Fàbregas was clattered early on, but was able to play on (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Birmingham, always formidable on their own turf, had lost just one of their nine home league games this season – and one of 24 stretching back to a 2-1 defeat to Bolton in September 2009. This season, St Andrew’s has already seen a win over champions Chelsea and draws against both Tottenham and Manchester United.

Against United on Tuesday night, Birmingham had benefitted from a clear handball by Nikola Žigić which set up Lee Bowyer‘s last-minute equaliser. And their good fortune with refereeing decisions looked set to continue when centre-back Roger Johnson was fortunate to escape with a yellow card after a two-footed, studs-up challenge on Fàbregas which brought memories of Martin Taylor‘s leg-breaking tackle on Eduardo from the same fixture three years ago flooding back.

Van Persie scored his first league goal of the season (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But Arsenal were not to be intimidated, and karma would quickly come back to deal harsh retribution on Birmingham. Van Persie drew a foul, tumbling to the ground after Scott Dann tugged his shirt. A foul? Yes, but a soft one. The striker dusted himself off to take the free kick himself, Bowyer, on the end of the wall, turned sideways and the ball cannoned off his elbow past a stranded Ben Foster. It was the Dutchman’s first league goal of his injury-hit season, and his first direct from a free kick since late 2007.

Karma wasn’t finished yet, though. Lukasz Fabiański had just made a smart diving save from a Seb Larsson free kick – Birmingham’s only effort on target in the entire game – when a cross hit van Persie high on the arm. A clear handball: no penalty given.

Reprieved, Arsenal continued to flood forward with confidence. Time and again their pace down the flanks threatened to shred the home side’s defences – with Theo Walcott in particular nigh on unplayable at times – only for the final ball or finish to lack the killer touch. Van Persie missed the clearest chance to increase the lead, dinking the ball straight at Foster when sent through one-on-one, but Arsenal could easily have been three or four up by half-time.

Birmingham offered little in response, although they did create one moment of serious alarm. A free kick was flicked on by Cameron Jerome and fell to Johnson on the edge of the six-yard box, but his volley was that of a defender rather than a forward, and threatened the occupants of row Z more than it did Fabiański’s goal.

Any thoughts during the interval that Arsenal might relax as they did in the second half at Wigan were soon dispelled as they continued to attack relentlessly after the break. Jack Wilshere, on his 19th birthday, should have delivered his own present but scooped over after great work down the right from Walcott. Immediately after, a quick break saw Fàbregas spring Nasri free, but Foster did well to deny him.

Nasri scored one goal and played a key role in another (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Would the visitors pay for their profligacy? No. Three minutes later, Nasri played a quick one-two with his captain, advanced to the edge of the area, and steered a precise strike beyond the diving Foster’s right hand. It was the Frenchman’s 13th goal of a hugely impressive season.

The goal seemed to knock the stuffing out of Birmingham, who suddenly looked leggy and slow as they started to tire, while Arsenal remained fresh. (The benefits of squad rotation!) Eight minutes later, two became three and the game ended as a contest. Again, the creative spark came from a quicksilver exchange of passes between Nasri and Fàbregas. The Spaniard drove into the box, where his shot was saved by Foster and ricocheted off both Dann and Johnson before rolling into the unguarded net.

And that was pretty much that. Arsenal created and spurned a number of other chances to pad the margin of victory – van Persie being the most culpable – and Žigić struck the woodwork in injury time, but it mattered not. Notwithstanding the non-penalty decision, Arsenal had outclassed their hosts throughout and were excellent value for both the three points and a rare clean sheet.

After the game, Wenger was quick to point out the benefits of rotating his squad during the hectic Christmas programme:

I decided from the start when I saw the fixtures that I needed to rotate. You can do four or five in one game and four or five in the other game but I decided to go with the whole lot in one game and come back with the whole lot in the third game.

I can understand that I was criticised but I think what is important is that I am paid to make decisions. Strong decisions are better than half-decisions. I took a decision [making eight changes against Wigan] and it nearly worked, we were a little bit unlucky. I could have played the same team three times and lost at Wigan and tonight. I consider that we dropped two points at Wigan but you can also say that Manchester United dropped two points at St Andrew’s. Over the festive period we were the team with less recovery time than any team and the team who played, along with Manchester United, twice away from home.

There had been plenty of tough tackling from Birmingham players throughout the game. In addition to Johnson’s early challenge on Fàbregas, there was also an apparent stamp by Bowyer on Bacary Sagna. When asked about their opponents’ physical approach, he replied:

We were prepared mentally today to face physical challenges and we prepared ourselves not to lose our game and be calm, intelligent and especially to have the focus to put the ball down and play our game.

We needed to be resilient without losing our nerves. I give great credit to my players for doing that because they kept calm, intelligent and never let nerves come out in their game. I am very proud of my team today.

The team should indeed be proud after producing one of their best all-round performances of the season. Johan Djourou‘s strength solidified a back four which handled everything Birmingham could throw at them with relative ease, with Laurent Koscielny looking more assured beside him than he does when partnering Sébastien Squillaci. Fabiański had virtually nothing to do, but when called upon produced a key save from Larsson’s free kick.

Wilshere and Alex Song anchored the midfield effectively, giving Fàbregas, Nasri and the effervescent Walcott free rein to attack. Birmingham were simply unable to cope with their combination of pace and invention. And though van Persie had a largely poor game, he will take confidence from having finally opened his Premier League account for the season.

Overall, seven points from Chelsea at home and Wigan and Birmingham away represents a good return, which I suspect most Arsenal fans would have been more than happy with if offered that before Christmas. A win over Manchester City to conclude the holiday programme on Wednesday night would upgrade that to ‘excellent’, and provide the springboard for a serious title challenge through the second half of the season. Despite its inconsistencies and recurring frustrations, this team is growing. And with the top two still to visit the Emirates – Arsenal’s only remaining away game against a fellow top-six club is at Tottenham at the end of February – they are very much in control of their own destiny too.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to Fàbregas and Nasri provide the spark as Arsenal give Birmingham the blues

  1. Alex Cap says:

    Fabanski almost looked like a real goalkeeper last night
    too. Last night’s performance almost made me forget that we are in
    dire need of a decent goalkeeper. We will look on the Wigan debacle
    as a bit of a blip…I think last night’s match was Arsenal
    starting the year as they mean to go on. Roll on Wednesday

    • Tim says:

      Fabianski certainly seems to be developing into a decent goalkeeper. World class? No. But good enough – particularly in a world where world-class keepers are in very short supply.

      Wigan needs to be seen in the context of the holiday sequence of games. Seven points from three games, with City at home to come? I’m happy with that, especially if we win on Wednesday. What with the opponents we have had and the timing of the games (the Chelsea match being pushed back 24 hours for TV), I would be ecstatic with a return of 10 points.

  2. Pingback: Arsenal’s trophy drought continues after gifting Birmingham late Carling Cup winner « The armchair sports fan

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