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Arsenal find they do like to be beside the seaside

Blackpool 1 Arsenal 3

Taylor-Fletcher 52; Diaby 18, Eboué 21, van Persie 76

Arsenal rode their luck – escaping three strong Blackpool penalty shouts – but eventually emerged as winners as goals by Abou Diaby, Emmanuel Eboué and Robin van Persie punished the Seasiders’ attempts to hold a high back line. Victory keeps Arsenal’s faint title hopes alive, moving them back to within seven points of leaders Manchester United, with a game in hand.

The visitors arrived at Bloomfield Road missing the injured Alex Song and Bacary Sagna, and with Theo Walcott on the bench. They were further weakened when Manuel Almunia injured a knee in the warm-up, forcing a last-minute change which gave 41-year old Jens Lehmann his 200th Arsenal appearance.

Lehmann

Eboué – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Diaby– Wilshere

Fàbregas

Nasri – van Persie – Arshavin

Despite a poor recent run of form which had seen them draw their last three Premier League games, Arsenal came into this match with more points (26) away from home than any other team. Conversely, Blackpool had earned the fewest home points (15) in the division. Back in August, a Walcott hat-trick helped Arsenal ease to a 6-0 win at the Emirates, after Ian Evatt had been sent off in the first half.

A one-two punch

Blackpool had the better of the opening 15 minutes, as both sides sprung forward adventurously in search of the all-important opening goal. They forced two corners in the first three minutes, with Evatt heading the second one wide from close range. They also had a strong penalty shout turned down after Laurent Koscielny appeared to lunge in on Gary Taylor-Fletcher and make contact with player rather than ball.

Diaby started and finished the move which resulted in the opening goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

But the hosts were shaky at the back too, with the combination of Cesc Fàbregas and Robin van Persie in particular carving them open repeatedly. The Holland striker had already fired a free kick over and miscontrolled a through ball when he provided the assist which broke the deadlock after 18 minutes. Diaby stole the ball from Jason Puncheon, fed Fàbregas in the centre circle and charged upfield. The Arsenal captain found van Persie on the left, and he immediately chested the ball down and rolled in a slide-rule ball across the face of goal to give Diaby the simplest of tap-ins from six yards. It was a fine counter-attacking move of a type which has been all too absent from Arsenal’s play in recent weeks.

Three minutes later the visitors doubled their lead. From a throw-in, Eboué played a simple give-and-go with Jack Wilshere before rifling in a fierce left-footed shot from 12 yards.

A shell-shocked Blackpool could easily have found the game out of reach before half-time. First van Persie was foiled by Richard Kingson. Then Samir Nasri saw one shot stopped and another strike a post within seconds of each other. After van Persie had rounded Kingson, Diaby dithered on the ball allowing Stephen Crainey to get in a saving tackle. And finally Wilshere, played in by Nasri, nearly lobbed the keeper with an angled chip. And yet they nearly went in at the interval just one down, as Fàbregas had to hack the ball off his own goalline after a goalmouth scramble.

A major wobble before van Persie steadies the ship

The second half started in the same vein as the first, with Blackpool dangerous in attack. Varney side-footed an early chance wide from close range, but a goal was not long in coming. Blackpool broke quickly after referee Lee Mason played a good advantage in midfield. Puncheon played in D J Campbell as Eboué allowed him to run across him and Gaël Clichy played him onside. Lehmann, charging off his line, appeared to bring down the Blackpool striker with a foul reminiscent of the one which resulted in his dismissal in the 2006 Champions League final. Mason again waved play on as the ball broke to Taylor-Fletcher, who steered it into the open goal. Had he not scored, the veteran keeper would most likely have been dismissed – and Arsenal did not have a backup available on the bench. The goal meant Blackpool maintained their record of having both scored and conceded in all 15 of their league home games this season.

Koscielny was twice lucky not to concede penalties for tackles on Taylor-Fletcher (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Having conceded a goal – not for the first time this season – to an opponent’s first shot on target in the game, Arsenal promptly went to pieces for the next ten minutes. Simple passes were misplaced and a noticeable hesitancy crept into their defending. Barely a minute after scoring, Taylor-Fletcher was again brought down in the box by Koscielny after a sloppy pass by Eboué. It looked a clear penalty – but Mason waved away the subsequent appeal. Keith Southern then headed wide from close range as Arsenal’s defence again went AWOL.

Arsène Wenger brought on Walcott for the ineffective Andrey Arshavin, and the change coincided with a steadying of the visitors’ nerve. Van Persie dragged another good opportunity wide of Kingson’s far post as Arsenal started to assert their passing game again.

And the visitors were definitely in the ascendancy again when they hit Blackpool with a classic sucker punch for the decisive third goal. It started in their own penalty area with Sébastien Squillaci making a critical tackle. Diaby then held off the close attentions of Puncheon on the edge of the box before turning and chipping the ball forward to Fàbregas, who volleyed the ball on first time for the unmarked Walcott. The England winger charged down the flank before rolling the perfect pass into the path of van Persie, who made no mistake from 12 yards. It was van Persie’s 12th league goal of the campaign – all of which have been scored since the New Year, and marked his best ever return for a single season.

The goal essentially killed the game as a contest, although there was still time for Lehmann to make a decisive contribution. Clichy, facing his own goal, dawdled in possession and was robbed by Taylor-Fletcher, but the 41-year old belied his age to come out quickly and deny Campbell.

As performances go, it was less than perfect, but a first league win since February 23rd (1-0 versus Stoke) was welcome nonetheless.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Arsène Wenger was much more positive about his team’s performance than he had been after last week’s 0-0 draw with Blackburn:

I knew that, at 2-0, they would not give up. We missed some chances in the first half and, at 2-1, we had a little nervy period. Making it 3-1 killed the game because they had given a lot.

I think it was a good performance because we had a good response to the flat game last Sunday. What people forget is that we are on a long unbeaten run, even if we had not won recently. But it was important to get a win.

He claimed not to have been worried about Lehmann’s late inclusion in the starting line-up:

I was not concerned because I replaced a good goalkeeper with a good goalkeeper. The only concern was not having a goalkeeper on the bench anymore. If something had happened to Jens, because he had not played for a long time, we would have had a problem.

As for Arsenal’s prospects in the run-in, he said:

Today, only three points would help us keep our chances [alive]. We have promised ourselves to give everything until the end of the season. There are still seven games left and that is a long time.

Although there were still plenty of worrying aspects to Arsenal’s performances, there were at least plenty of positives to take out of the game. Up front, van Persie’s intelligent movement ran the Blackpool defence ragged, and with a surer first touch could have finished with a hat-trick. Fàbregas, for the first time since his return from injury, looked a threat whenever he had time on the ball. Diaby had one of his better games, although he remains a liability defensively with his lack of positional awareness and slowness of thought. And Wilshere, despite being on the receiving end of several bruising tackles, kept his temper and was a constant threat either giving or receiving the ball. Arshavin had a quiet game, but Nasri was industrious and unlucky not to break his scoring drought, while Walcott terrorised Blackpool’s defence after he came on.

Defensively, the less said the better. Koscielny was twice guilty of lunging in unnecessarily, and was extremely lucky not to concede penalties on both occasions. That Eboué is a weak link comes as no surprise, but Clichy’s moment of complete brain-fade was something we have seen too often from the left back. Lehmann, his foul on Campbell aside, had little to do but did it well, generally commanding his area and organising his defence vocally and with authority. The reflexes may not be what they were, but he is still a leader.

31 down, seven to go. If Arsenal are to make a fist of the title race, they will have to do it the hard way. Next up is a home game against Liverpool, followed by Tottenham and Bolton away, Manchester United at home and Stoke away. The odds are certainly against them, but who knows what might yet happen in this most unpredictable of seasons?

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

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