Arsenal made heavy weather of seeing off Burnley at Ashburton Grove yesterday. Though they dominated the match, a host of missed chances meant the three points could not be considered safely banked until Andrey Arshavin drilled home a third goal for the Gunners in stoppage time.
After the events at the Britannia Stadium last weekend, Aaron Ramsey was very much the focus of the pre-match proceedings. Several banners were unfurled around the stadium and the players came out of the tunnel wearing “Get Well Soon” t-shirts over their kits. One would have thought that fuelled by righteous indignation and the desire to “Do it for Aaron”, as one of the large flags exhorted, that the Gunners would really tear into Burnley from the kick-off with some real blood and thunder. In reality, their first half performance was measured, patient and, at times, a bit pedestrian.
Get Well Soon Aaron
The first half was so tame that, maybe as a hangover from Ramsey’s injury, it took nearly twenty minutes for the first freekick to be awarded for a foul. For all their dominance, Arsenal never really had Burnley reeling in the early stages but took the lead in the 34th minute when Samir Nasri’s pinpoint chip found Cesc Fabregas in the box and the captain side-footed the volley home.
Worryingly, Fabregas exited the match a few minutes later with a recurrence of his hamstring injury. How serious the problem is won’t be known until Monday but it goes without saying that everyone will be hoping that he will be fit enough for Tuesday’s Champions League second-leg against Porto. The Spaniard has been inspirational this season. He has led by example and his individual play and goal tally are a major reason why the Gunners still find themselves in the title race. Him staying injury-free between now and the end of the campaign will have a huge bearing on Arsenal’s chances of winning something.
Without their captain, the team did momentarily lose its way. Some feeble defending allowed Burnley back into the match as David Nugent got on the end of a route-one pass that dropped between Vermaelen and Sylvestre and lobbed Manuel Almunia. It was a desperately poor goal to concede.
However, Burnley’s equaliser did serve to finally inject some urgency into Arsenal’s performance. Theo Walcott who had produced his most effective display of the season so far fired the Gunners back into the lead just after the hour cutting in from the right-wing and placing a left-footed shot into the far corner of the net. It was a goal that lifted the crowd and the players and, on an individual level, hopefully it will see Walcott’s form turn a corner after what has been a frustrating and disappointing time for him since August.
From there it really should have been a rout as the chances began to come thick and fast. Unfortunately, most of the opportunities fell to Nicklas Bendtner who had a day to truly forget in front of goal. In the second half he was presented with three gilt-edged chances that should have been converted but all were spurned. The misses no doubt presented the ever-diminishing number of Bendtner-haters in the crowd with fuel for their vitriol but, thankfully, the majority of the crowd took pity on the Dane and the stadium rose and gave him a sympathetic ovation when he was finally substituted in the 73rd minute. In turn, he gestured apologetically to the supporters after what had been an exceedingly bad day at the office.
Since returning from surgery on his groin, Bendtner has been playing himself back up to full pace and in recent weeks has begun to find the net for both Arsenal and Denmark. His contribution runs deeper than merely getting on the scoresheet though. During his comeback, he has added presence to the forward line and by dropping in short to accept the balls from the midfield he gives the Gunners’ attack something to pivot around.
Yesterday’s misses were atrocious but the youngster should not be crucified for them. Trying to take a positive view, his finishing left plenty to be desired at least he was getting himself into the right position. On another day a couple of those chances might have flown in and he would have been a hero. With only nine games to go, there is no point in the crowd getting on his back and undermining his confidence further. With that in mind, it was heartening that the home support recognised this yesterday and did not pillory him as he left the field.
Bendtner’s misses might have been fodder to be replayed on today’s sports reports but he was not the only one at it. Arshavin made a terrible hash of two opportunities that were nearly as bad as the Dane's howlers before he then fired home the clincher. This was a match that Arsenal should have won by a far wider margin but the squandered chances made little difference at the final whistle as three points were earned and the Gunners had done everything in their power to maintain pressure on Chelsea and Manchester United. It wasn’t a great performance but they did enough to beat a Burnley side which is still finding its feet under a new management team.
The satisfaction at taking the spoils was somewhat tempered by the concern about Fabregas’s injury and it presents Arsene Wenger with a dilemma ahead of Tuesday night’s Champions League clash with Porto. Does he play his captain and risk aggravating the injury further? Or does he rest him with a view to keeping him fit for upcoming Premier League matches and hope the rest of the team can overturn the 2-1 deficit from the first leg?
It is testimony to Fabregas’s form and influence so far this season that going into the Porto match without him is a worrying prospect. During periods when he has been absent though injury, the team has lacked the guile, creativity and cutting edge that he provides. Should he miss Tuesday night’s match though, others will have to step up to the plate. After his performance against Burnley, the most likely candidate to make an impact could be Samir Nasri.
Nasri is a player who clearly has talent but often leaves you thinking that he ought to be delivering greater things on a far more frequent basis. (The same thing could be said of Tomas Rosicky). However, in recent weeks, the Frenchman has appeared more assertive and seems to be applying himself to his task with a lot more rigour. The assist he provided for Fabregas’s goal yesterday was sublime but what was really impressive was his level of energy and work-rate all afternoon. He had a really good game and in the event of the captain having to miss the Porto game another big performance from him will be required.
Still, we won’t know the situation with Fabregas until tomorrow at the earliest but all Arsenal fingers will be crossed that his withdrawal from yesterday’s action came before any serious damage was done to his troublesome hamstring. On the brighter side, Alex Song and Sol Campbell are likely to feature against Porto and they will bolster the team in what is going to be a crucial evening at Ashburton Grove.