Villa overturned by Arsenal’s perfect storm

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 2

van Persie 54 pen, 61 pen, Walcott 56; Dunne 33, Bent 45+1

Arsenal walked off the pitch to opprobrium at half-time and adulation at full-time after a stirring second half comeback put them through to the last 16 of the FA Cup. As abject as they were in going 2-0 down in the first 45 minutes, they showed tremendous spirit in scoring three times in the space of seven minutes to reverse their fortunes against a shell-shocked Aston Villa.

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The week in numbers: w/e 23/10/11

Simoncelli died in a crash at the Malaysia MotoGP on Sunday (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

24 – Age of Italian MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli, who died after a crash at the Malaysian MotoGP in Sepang. He competed in 34 MotoGP races for Honda, setting two poles and recording two podium finishes. It was the first fatality in MotoGP since Japan’s Daijiro Katoh died after a crash at the 2003 Japanese GP, while last year Japan’s Shoya Tomizawa died in a Moto2 race in San Marino.

7 – Britain’s track cycling team dominated the European Track Championships in Apeldoorn, Holland, winning seven gold medals in the 13 events. No other country won more than one gold. They won the men’s keirin (Matt Crampton), omnium (Ed Clancy) and team pursuit, and the women’s keirin (Victoria Pendleton), omnium (Laura Trott), team sprint and team pursuit.

1 – At the halfway point of the group phase in the Champions League only Real Madrid still have a 100% record, although ten out of the 32 teams remain unbeaten.

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The week in numbers: w/e 15/5/11

Djokovic beat Nadal in the final for the fourth tournament in a row

37Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal 6-4 6-4 in the final of the Rome Masters to record his 37th consecutive victory of 2011 and his seventh title of the year.

4 – Djokovic has now beaten Nadal in the final of the last four Masters 1000 tournaments in which he has played (two on hard courts, two on clay).

31 – Former Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou were given 31-month suspended jail sentences for faking a motorcycle crash to evade a doping test on the eve of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

21Barcelona won their 21st La Liga title, their third in a row, with a 1-1 draw at Levante on Wednesday night.

254Somerset‘s Nick Compton scored an unbeaten 254 in the first innings of their drawn County Championship game against Durham.

Wouter Weylandt, 1984-2011 (image courtesy of Graham Watson).

26 – Age of Belgian cyclist Wouter Weylandt, who was killed in a crash on stage three of the Giro d’Italia. He was the fourth cyclist to be killed as a result of a crash at the Giro, and the first in 25 years.

59 – Number of seconds by which Alberto Contador leads the Giro after winning stage nine on Mount Etna yesterday.

24 – Age of Kenyan 2008 Olympic marathon champion Samuel ‘Sammy’ Wanjiru, who died after falling from a first-floor balcony at his home in Nyahururu.

6 – Years since Napoli were playing in the third tier of Italian football. A 1-1 draw with Inter Milan saw them qualify for their first ever Champions League campaign.

54 – In his last season before retirement, manager Walter Smith guided Rangers to their 54th Scottish league title after a 5-1 win at Kilmarnock.

The Premier League in numbers

Rodríguez was quick off the mark against Fulham

32Liverpool‘s Maxi Rodríguez scored the fastest goal of the Premier League season after just 32 seconds in the 5-2 win at Fulham last Monday night.

2 – The above result meant that all 20 Premier League teams scored in the same game-week for only the second time in the competition’s history. The previous occurrence was also this season.

19Manchester United‘s 1-1 draw at Blackburn secured a record 19th English top-flight title, surpassing Liverpool’s total of 18.

1,000D J Campbell scored the 1,000th goal of the 2010/11 Premier League season in Blackpool‘s 4-3 win over Bolton.

2 – On FA Cup final day, Blackpool’s win was a repeat of the scoreline of the 1953 FA Cup final (the ‘Matthews final’), as was West Bromwich Albion‘s 1-0 win over Everton, a repeat of the 1968 Cup final result.

24Tottenham‘s 2-0 win at Anfield meant they completed a league double over Liverpool for the first time in 24 years.

Bent scored against Arsenal - again

5Darren Bent‘s two goals in Aston Villa‘s 2-1 win at Arsenal improved his record to five goals in his last five starts against the Gunners.

17Robin van Persie scored his 17th league goal of 2011 against Villa – the same number of goals as the entire Blackburn team have scored since New Year.

0 – The Emirates Stadium is the only Premier League ground that has not seen a single goal scored with a shot from outside the box (both Arsenal and all visiting sides) this season.

The FA Cup final in numbers

35Manchester City won their first trophy in 35 years as they defeated Stoke 1-0 in the FA Cup final.

5 – All five FA Cup finals at the new Wembley Stadium have been decided by a single goal.

4 – Of the five finals at the new Wembley, four have ended with an African player scoring the only goal of the game (Didier Drogba twice, Kanu, Yaya Touré).

Touré secured City's first trophy in 35 years

2Yaya Touré has attempted just two shots on target in his last two FA Cup appearances, both of which have been winning goals.

1Vincent Kompany became the first Belgian player to win the FA Cup. Nico Claesen (1987) and Marouane Fellaini (2009) lost in the final.

4 – Stoke became the fourth debutant finalist in a row to lose, after Millwall (2004), Middlesbrough (1997) and Crystal Palace (1990). The last team to win in their debut appearance in was Wimbledon in 1988 (1-0 vs Liverpool).

5 – Five of Stoke’s outfield players misplaced more passes than they completed: Kenwyne Jones, Andy Wilkinson, Matthew Etherington, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times@InfostradaLive and @StatManJon.)

Arsenal the villains as Villa show the value of being Bent

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 2

Van Persie 89; Bent 11, 15

Arsenal lost their last home league fixture of the season for the first time in 14 years as Darren Bent made them pay for two sloppy early defensive errors. Aston Villa were subsequently able to repel the home side’s laborious attempts at a comeback, aided by a series of questionable officiating decisions. The only bright points for the home side were yet another goal for the prolific Robin van Persie and the successful return of Thomas Vermaelen after nearly nine months out through injury.

A reshuffled central defence saw Vermaelen and Sébastien Squillaci start after Johan Djourou (ankle) and Laurent Koscielny (thigh) were ruled out. Other than those two enforced changes, this was the same side which capitulated so tamely at Stoke last week.

Szczęsny

Sagna– Squillaci – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Ramsey

Wilshere

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Two basic errors, two goals

Let’s get the excuses out of the way first. On another day, Arsenal could easily have won this game against a Villa side which did little aside from their two goals. Referee Michael Oliver blew for questionable fouls in each half by van Persie and Marouane Chamakh which denied them a pair of seemingly legitimate scores, and a first-half lunge by Richard Dunne on Aaron Ramsey in which the defender made contact with player not ball also went unpunished.

Having said all that, Arsenal did not deserve to win.

Squillaci had a terrible game and was directly responsible for conceding the opener (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

After a lethargic start in which neither team distinguished themselves but the visitors had been the more industrious, two basic carbon-copy errors gifted Bent – who is increasingly looking like a January bargain at £24m – a pair of chances which he took with some aplomb. First a ball-watching Squillaci played Bent onside, and the England striker chested the ball and struck a fine volley with the outside of his right boot. Then, four minutes later, Bacary Sagna did likewise, allowing Bent a one-on-one chance which he finished with casual ease. It was his fifth goal in his last five starts against Arsenal.

15 minutes gone. 0-2. They would be Villa’s only goal attempts in the half.

As has been the case too often this season, Arsenal’s response to going behind was tentative at best. In the first half-hour, a couple of crosses from Theo Walcott and Sagna was the sum total of Arsenal’s threat.

But then Jack Wilshere and Ramsey, both industrious throughout, combined to create the game’s first moment of controversy. Ramsey darted towards the Villa box. Wilshere spotted his run and lifted the ball over the top. Dunne came across and lunged in desperately just as the Welshman was about to pull the trigger. He missed the ball altogether and appeared to touch Ramsey. Referee Oliver waved play on.

Three times in the final 15 minutes of the half Arsenal had opportunities to pull one back, and it was no coincidence that it was two of their most committed players, van Persie and Vermaelen, who were at the heart of things. First van Persie wriggled free in the box and lashed his angled drive against the bar. Shortly after Vermaelen’s determination ensured he was first to meet a corner, but his powerful header went just over. And finally, on the stroke of half-time, van Persie spun away from Dunne who, having stuck his foot between the Dutchman’s, appeared to trip himself up. Van Persie advanced and squared to offer Ramsey an easy tap-in, but the defender’s tumble was adjudged to have been the result of foul play. It looked a harsh decision.

Notwithstanding their late chances, Arsenal were booed off by an Emirates crowd featuring a fair number of empty seats. It’s hard to argue they didn’t deserve it.

Too little, too late

Squillaci’s reward for a half in which he had been back on his heels throughout and directly responsible for conceding the opener was to be replaced by Chamakh, with Alex Song moving into the back four – although the Cameroon international would effectively remain in midfield as Villa were increasingly content to leave ten men behind the ball at all times.

With the added firepower up front, Arsenal started the second half with more urgency but without end product. The disappointing Andrey Arshavin shot straight at Brad Friedel. Walcott whipped in a superb cross which just evaded Chamakh. Nicklas Bendtner replaced Arshavin and immediately teed up Walcott, who spun and shot wide from five yards.

The home fans, growing weary of their team’s lack of cutting edge, broke into a chant of “6%? You’re having a laugh!” in reference to the club’s untimely decision to increase season ticket prices.

Van Persie's 17th league goal was little more than a consolation (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The closing minutes saw Arsenal pressing forward with increasing desperation, and they should have been rewarded with a goal in the 76th minute. Walcott whipped in a delightful cross which Chamakh rose to head in at the far post, but the officials called it back for the slightest of pushes. Again, it looked awfully harsh.

Half-chances came and went. Song and Ramsey saw shots blocked, and Friedel did well to block another effort by van Persie. But the Dutchman was not to be denied, tapping in from five yards out with a minute left in normal time after great persistence by Bendtner in the box. It was no more than a consolation, but it was nonetheless van Persie’s 17th Premier League goal of the season, all of which have been scored since the turn of the year. As the rest of the side has crumbled around him, the striker has been Arsenal’s one shining light in the gathering gloom.

However, the final whistle confirmed another home defeat – Arsenal’s fourth at the once impregnable Emirates – and Manchester City can now push the Gunners down to fourth with victory over Stoke in mid-week. The players’ reward for their lackadaisical and frankly unprofessional approach to the title run-in will now most likely be a truncated summer break and the prospect of a potentially awkward Champions League qualifier at the start of next season. For that, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match, Arsène Wenger bemoaned his team’s sluggish start to the game:

We dropped three points today which could cost us the automatic qualification for the Champions League.

We were punished because we went into the game too tentative. We were not dominant enough in anything we did and we were on the back foot at the start. After that we battled to get back into the game but we were a bit unlucky. I feel we had a penalty, a goal that I have not seen cancelled often away from home. Overall of course we are frustrated and I am frustrated by the performance.

And he commented on whether he feels pressure from the fans to spend in the summer:

The fans want to win football games. They will not check how much money we spend, they want to win football games. When we don’t, they are not happy and that is completely normal. We will try to strengthen our team, of course, but the best way to keep our fans happy is to win the games.

I have written at length over the past few weeks about the lack of a winning mentality and the ‘right’ attitude in too many of Arsenal’s players, but yet again it was two basic defensive errors which cost them dear. Squillaci in particular has shown himself over the course of this season to be a passive, positional defender who lacks aggression – he is simply not good enough – but as a team Arsenal defended poorly. Sagna’s error was uncharacteristic and Vermaelen looked surprisingly sharp after his long absence, but Kieran Gibbs showed flashes of both brilliance and naivety – as he has done all season – which suggest he is not yet ready to step up to the first team permanently. Gary Cahill has often been mentioned as a transfer target, but I’m a fan of Blackburn‘s Christopher Samba. And if Gaël Clichy should move on in the summer, I would love to see Leighton Baines offered the chance of regular European football.

In midfield, Song has had an up-and-down season and I cannot help but feel the balance is wrong. An experienced hand like relegated West Ham‘s Scott Parker would add considerable steel to Arsenal’s midfield and complement the talents of the existing players well.

Up front, although van Persie has been on an incredible scoring streak since January, I wonder if he would be more effective playing in the Bergkamp role behind a powerful number nine. Whether either Chamakh or Bendtner have sufficient quality to be that front man is debatable. But what about Asamoah Gyan, who combines pace and power with a decent scoring record – ten goals in 30 league games – at far-from-prolific Sunderland?

For van Persie to play in the Bergkamp role would be contingent on either Cesc Fàbregas‘s departure – which may well happen, but I’m not advocating it – or a change in formation. Should Fàbregas leave, I would like to see us experimenting with a 4-4-1-1 which could look something like this:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Samba – Vermaelen – Baines

Walcott – Parker – Wilshere – Nasri

van Persie

Gyan

It’s just a thought, anyway, and one of a number of possible permutations. The only certain thing is that this will be one of the most important summers in Arsenal’s history. With Manchester City breaking into the top four, Liverpool resurgent and Tottenham likely to bounce back, the club will need to take a couple of steps forward just to stand still, let alone compete for silverware deeper into the season.

Arsenal finish next Sunday with the short trip across town to Fulham with third spot now in the balance, but out of their direct control. I suspect most fans now cannot wait for a season which promised so much in its first six months to end.

The week in numbers: w/e 23/1/11

Southee's five-wicket haul steered NZ to victory over Pakistan

11New Zealand ended their 11-match losing run in one-day internationals as they crushed Pakistan by nine wickets in Wellington. Seamer Tim Southee took 5/33, the best ever bowling figures by a Kiwi bowler in ODIs against Pakistan.

14 – Barcelona equalled their club record of 14 straight La Liga wins with a 3-0 defeat of Racing Santander on Saturday evening.

5 – Including Wednesday’s 3-1 win at Elland Road, the last five times Arsenal and Leeds have been drawn together in the FA Cup, the eventual winner of the tie has triumphed on their opponent’s turf.

2 – Winning margin in seconds for Cameron Meyer in cycling’s Tour Down Under after nearly 18 hours of racing.

23 – Age of HTC-Highroad cyclist Carla Swart, who was killed in a collision with a lorry while on a training ride in South Africa.

Safina failed to win a single game against Clijsters (image courtesy of dinarasafina.com)

1Dinara Safina became the first former world number one in Open era history to suffer a double bagel (6-0 6-0) defeat at a Grand Slam, losing to Kim Clijsters in the first round at the Australian Open.

8Rafael Nadal beat Bernard Tomic in straight sets, ensuring that all of the top eight seeds qualified for the last 16. This has only happened at the tournament twice before in the Open area (1985 and 2009).

284 Francesca Schiavone beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4 1-6 16-14 in their last-16 match. At 284 minutes, it was the longest women’ singles match at a Grand Slam tournament in the Open era.

1Northampton were the only team to finish the Heineken Cup group phase with a perfect record of six wins from six games. Toulouse were denied a 100% record when David Lemi‘s last-minute try gave London Wasps a 21-16 win.

The Premier League week in numbers

Van Persie scored his first hat-trick in English football (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

1Robin van Persie scored his first Premier League hat-trick as Arsenal beat Wigan 3-0. He has previously scored twice in a Premier League game on nine occasions.

3 Dimitar Berbatov‘s hat-trick in Manchester United‘s 5-0 demolition of Birmingham made him only the third man to register three Premier League hat-tricks in the same season. Ruud van Nistelrooy achieved this feat in the 2002/03 season, while Alan Shearer managed it twice, including one season where he scored an incredible five hat-tricks.

10Manchester United have now won their last ten home games against Birmingham, having kept ten clean sheets in the process.

11Tottenham‘s 1-1 draw at Newcastle means they have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their 11 league away games this season.

Bent scored on his debut

3Darren Bent scored the only goal as Aston Villa defeated Manchester City 1-0. He has now scored on his Premier League debut for Aston Villa, Sunderland and Charlton.

22 – Players from 22 different nationalities (including substitutes) took part in Blackburn‘s 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, a new Premier League record.

21 – West Brom have now gone 21 consecutive league games without keeping a clean sheet.

The NFL conference championships in numbers

10 – The Green Bay Packers became the tenth different NFC champion in the last ten seasons, as they held off the Chicago Bears 21-14.

2 – The Packers became the second number six (bottom) seed in NFL history to reach the Super Bowl, joining the 2005 Steelers. (If the Jets had won the AFC Championship game, they would have been the third.)

Raji rumbled 18 yards for a key defensive touchdown (image courtesy of packers.com)

3B.J. Raji’s 18-yard interception return touchdown was only the third by a defensive tackle in NFL playoff history.

3 – The Bears are the only team since 1970 to have three quarterbacks – starter Jay Cutler, Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie – attempt a pass in a conference championship game.

14 – Number of passes attempted by Hanie in his three-year NFL career prior to last night, when he threw 20 times.

8 – The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 24-19 win over the New York Jets means they will play in their eighth Super Bowl, tied with Dallas for the most all-time. It will be their third Super Bowl appearance in six years.

0.833 – Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger improved his record as a playoff starter to 10-2. His .833 winning percentage is the second-highest in NFL playoff history (for quarterbacks with 10-plus starts). He trails only Bart Starr (.900).

121Rashard Mendenhall‘s 121 rushing yards was the most allowed by the Jets all season.

7 – Conference championship games are generally close affairs. This was the fifth consecutive year both AFC and NFC Championship games were within seven points in the fourth quarter.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times, @InfostradaLive, @StatManJon and NFL.com.)

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