Victory over Liverpool at Ashburton Grove on Wednesday night, coupled with favourable results elsewhere, lifted the spirits of Arsenal supporters after what has been a frustrating and disappointing few weeks.
Abou Diaby's headed goal in the 72nd minute was enough to clinch the points in a scruffy game. The Gunners successfully held off a late rally by the visitors with Manuel Almunia pulling off a tremendous save by tipping a Ryan Babel strike onto the bar to provide the only other truly notable moment of the evening aside from the goal.
Before the match, the atmosphere in the stadium was subdued with the hangover from the defeat at Chelsea still having not worn off. The action in the first half - if you can call it action - did little to shift the gloom. It was as dreary and untidy a spectacle as you can imagine two teams at the right end of the Premier League producing. No tempo, a staggering number of misplaced passes and we had to wait until the 45th minute before Arsenal mustered a shot at the Liverpool goal that actually required Reina to make some sort of save.
Though the quality didn’t improve much in the second period, the pace and level of effort did and it became a far more watchable encounter on what was a freezing cold night in North London. Though it seemed that Liverpool were playing for a nil-nil draw for most of the evening, the Gunners stepped things up and looked the more likely team. Diaby’s clincher was just rewards for the team’s effort and, indeed, the player himself. During the first four months of the season his form was dreadful at times but, more recently, when he has been fit, he has applied himself more rigorously to his task and has made a much more meaningful contribution.
Liverpool raised their level of ambition in the closing stages trying to chase an equaliser but, in a performance that harked back more to the days of George Graham’s reign as manager, it stayed one-nil to the Arsenal when the final whistle blew. The relief of taking all three points for the first time in four matches turned to real satisfaction when the news from the other grounds started filtering through. Defeats for Chelsea and Spurs, together with United and Villa playing out a draw, meant that the Gunners not only consolidated their position in third place but also the glimmer of a chance they have of taking the title burned a shade more brightly.
It was hard to pick out any truly outstanding individual performances in a match that was so short on quality. Nicklas Bendtner returned to start up front and his presence did add a bit of balance and height to the frontline. He still looked well short of full match fitness and lacked sharpness but he will have come on for the outing. In the absence of Robin Van Persie, the young Dane has a chance to really prove himself over the next few months. He has never been short of confidence but that self-assurance now needs to be turned into goals and he needs to start delivering.
Theo Walcott also appeared as a substitute in the final twenty minutes and, yet again, turned in an abject display. He looks absolutely bereft of any belief in himself and it is hard to know what the answer is with him at the moment. He needs to get some football under his belt but he can’t be played in the first team on current form because he contributes very little and is more of a liability than an asset right now. Even when used as an impact player lately, his presence has barely been noticed. Many supporters are already questioning whether he is nothing more than a sprinter masquerading as a footballer and much of the goodwill and latitude that he was given by the home support when he first arrived has now almost been used up. Somehow he needs to turn things around.
Walcott replaced Andrey Arshavin who, worryingly, limped off with an injury. We will find out over the next few days how serious the knock is but with so few striking options available at the moment, the team can ill-afford to have the Russian sidelined for any length of time.
Arsene Wenger claimed the title race is wide-open again after last night’s win and it was understandable that he wanted to talk the team’s chances up after the bruising criticism that he took following the recent defeats. The reality is though that Arsenal are relying on both Chelsea and Manchester United dropping further points whilst needing to maintain an exemplary level of form themselves. It is still a very tall order.
In some quarters, the Premier League this season has been dubbed "The Title No One Wants To Win" with no team so far stepping up to dominate proceedings and all the contenders seemingly capable of slipping up when they least need to. Of the top three teams, the Gunners certainly have the least margin for error. Since the Premier League begun in its current form in the 1992/93 season, only once has a team lost seven matches and lifted the trophy and that was Blackburn Rovers in 1994/95. With February only halfway through, Arsenal already have a six in the "L" column and, statistically at least, they barely have any scope to put a foot wrong.
The good news is that they are not that far behind the leaders and all fixtures, both home and away, with the other three of the so-called Big Four have now been cleared. The less good news is that this current Arsenal team can hardly be relied upon to go to awkward away grounds like Stoke and Birmingham and come away with a result let alone remain unbeaten until 9th May. They really do still have a massive task ahead of them.
Cliché though it is, all they can do is focus on each game as it comes, get their heads down and take care of their end of the deal in the hope that others will indeed slip-up. On their day, they have the beating of every team they have yet to face during the remainder of the season. It is down to the players to make sure it is "their day" more often than not - and there are several players in that squad that certainly owe the supporters a few performances between now and May.
Having been unceremoniously dumped out of the FA Cup by Stoke in the last round, Arsenal have a free weekend and the opportunity to prepare for their trip to Porto in the first-leg of their Champions League tie with the Portuguese side next Wednesday. Though the table-toppers in the Group phase are awarded the second leg at home in the first round of the knockout stage, this is often not quite the advantage it might seem as away goals in second legs can prove to be killer blows. It is therefore important that the Gunners seize the advantage in the first leg and force Porto to chase the tie in the return match at Ashburton Grove. One senses that Arsenal will have a far better chance of progressing if they don’t allow the Portuguese team the opportunity to spend the second leg with ten men behind the ball waiting to attack on the break.
After the rigours of the past four matches in the Premier League, the return of the Champions League is most welcome and after breezing through the Group phase, hopefully, the team can get straight back into the European groove.