Today I was once again sat in a seat directly behind the goal and had ample opportunity to observe the workout that Stack gave Jens prior to kick off. Graham blasted balls at Jens from close range with real venom. The result being a variation of that old favourite ‘lets try and kill a spectator’. Graham bagged three Gooners prior to the match with one poor guy being almost knocked over with an involuntary header that he knew very little about. Just as well Stack wasn’t likely to play up front today.
Despite the occasional glimpse of sun on our way up the M1 it was a cool day where the temperature seemed to dip even further after half time. Arsenal in their yellow strip kicked off towards the Holte End, which for those unfamiliar with Villa Park’s geography, is the opposite end from the travelling Gooners. We were in the North Stand Lower and also filled the north end of the Doug Ellis Stand lower, and there’s many Villa fans who would say you can’t get much lower than Doug Ellis. A banner hung from the top of the Holte End wanted Ellis out, but that’s been the way of things at Villa for about the last 30 years now, or so it seems. A piece in their programme said ‘Henry’s pace is frightening, but hopefully we can deal with him and get three points’. Their programme editor was obviously having a laugh.
Villa opened brightly and pressed in all areas of the pitch from the kick off. Henry won back a ball he’s earlier lost in the right back slot, just as he did in another match recently. We had our share of counter attacks early on but a cross in from Villa’s right, from a free kick near the touchline, beat everyone across the face of our goal. Scrappy was perhaps the best way to describe the early part of the match. With Sol and Lehmann both called upon to cut out crosses and a wild Villa shot going wide we were on the defensive at the start. Pires played a great low cross at the other end for Freddie. Another comfortable take by Jens followed. Incidentally Jens was also practising taking crosses prior to the game with Graham Stack hitting him in the air. A bit of practice that was well worth while given what Halsey let Villa get away with during the match.
Gilberto was one of many players having his shirt tugged by assorted Villa players but it did little to stop him having a great game. Kanu broke into their box with the ball apparently velcroed to his toe to win a corner. Some low unsuccessful corners came from Rob and some good moves started to flow from the yellows, one of which saw Lauren upended for a free kick wide right. A ball came back out of their box on the right wide, which Rob hit on the volley, a real peach which was tipped over for a corner by Sorensen. We were building good moves now and patiently trying to drag Villa out whilst trying to find the right killer ball.
Vieira exploded forward to find Henry with a fine cross. Pires had a low shot saved. Pat was being targeted and was upended more than once. Another fine move ended when Henry was whacked across the face by an arm and went down before the ball was kicked out. The ignorant Brummie hordes booed Titi as if he was acting, but we were told via the mobiles that Henry had a mouthful of blood, someone I think said he required stitches. So those thick bar stewards watched Tel get whacked and then booed the greatest player in the world, bad move I’d say. Don’t rile our Tel you stupid Brummies ‘cos he’s got his own form of revenge, it’s called scoring.
Angel had a half decent chance, which he hit over as Jens arrived a little late in his sweeper role. Hendrie put his studs into Ash but it went completely unnoticed. Villa’s best chance of the half fell to Allback whose shot was deflected for a corner, narrowly wide of Jen’s left post. I had the perfect view and am sure that Sol got a touch, but Halsey gave a goal kick. A good run by Samuel ended with a cross that went behind. No one was really on top at this stage, but then it all changed. A great run by Pat was ended abruptly with a trip on the edge of their box. Pat looked to be injured and a card should have been forthcoming. A Villa player stood over the ball to prevent a quick free kick, or so he thought, but he dropped off before the wall was set. Henry took the quick one, which he seemed to almost pass into their net. 28 minutes gone 0-1 Arsenal and Villa were incensed enough to pick up at least one booking during their protest, Delaney I think.
Henry was fouled in the back by Mellberg, Mellberg is a good enough player but a total thug. Thierry had a shot with his left that was saved. Pires and Cole combined well down our left. Kanu was pulling a lot of strings and getting stuck in. Freddie was off on a fast break and was totally flattened when Mellberg took him out, a yellow card for Mellberg but we’ve seen many a red for far less. More moaning from the Villa fans. Jens cut one out as Allback chased. Villa scored an offside goal but the flag had been up for about half an hour as the Villa fans jumped around in false celebration. Then they looked bemused as the Gooners did their cheering jump around piss take in response.
Henry clearly out jumped his man but Halsey was quick to award a free kick against him. Henry didn’t get one decision after this because the Villa fans were on his back for getting smacked in the mouth and scoring. Halsey did his best to help to appease their fans by playing Nelson to their next two fouls, a weak ref who looked as if he had a lot of promise when he first arrived in the Premiership. Pat and Rob combined for a good move down the left. Freddie was caught offside. Hitzlsperger chopped Pires; more moans and boos from the dimwits. Whittingham then absolutely hammered Gilberto, a nasty foul and a warranted yellow card. Two minutes added time and the stewards came on to escort Halsey off just so that the Villa fans knew they had to boo him some more. 0-1 Arsenal and on the balance of play we deserved it.
Villa kicked off and took up the early running when Jens had to save low at his near post. Hendrie was caught offside before Pires trampled over Delaney on a break. Mellberg then flattened Cole. Jens was out well to clear with his feet, he’s quite a two-footed player for a goalie in case you hadn’t noticed and is happy to punt clear with either foot. Henry broke and got in a low shot but Mellberg had done just enough to prevent Henry powering it. A Villa free kick saw Allback, I think, hit the top of the net. Arsenal in response broke through Kanu and Freddie.
Kanu was quite clearly pulled back in the box as he took on three players, but Halsey from the opposite angle gave the penalty, as he explained later, not for the massive tug but because he believed Kanu was impeded. Regardless of the why, from my seat in row E directly behind the goal it was a cast iron certainty, no question it was a penalty. Henry stepped up and took aim at my red hat, which he obviously saw through the netting, to the keepers left and hit it sweetly and hard. My head stayed on thanks to a slight touch by Sorensen and more importantly the netting, which rippled delightfully. 0-2 Arsenal. ‘Say we are top of the league, say we are top of the League.
A scabby bit of gamesmanship got Pat a yellow card for something that from my angle clearly wasn’t even a foul. A Henry cross, which came in from the left both low and hard, was met at the near post by Freddie, Gilberto and a Villa player. Freddie got the touch that went the wrong side of the post. The dirtiest foul of the match was by Gareth Barry on Freddie Ljungberg and it was quite evil. Like Mellberg on Freddie in the first half there was no pretence to play the ball. It got a yellow card, which meant he got off lightly.
Angel who was non-existent for much of the match fouled Pascal, unnoticed of course. A Henry run and cross found Rob beyond the far post, but Pires could get no purchase on his header. A dive by Hitzlsperger was waved play on. Henry was having his arm pulled back with two hands but Halsey was having none of it. Meanwhile back in our area Jens was taking a series of high balls with ease, even when challenged in the air. There was a fair bit of attack and counter attack at this stage but Arsenal always looked the more controlled in their play. Arsenal’s passes were more accurate and we also retained more possession. Villa attacked a fair bit but didn’t really threaten; it’s difficult to pick out much in the way of clear-cut chances that they had.
Pascal read the play well today and was nicking headers and stealing the ball. Gilberto won more than his fair share of ball while our midfield and front men had all worked at the defensive aspects of their game very creditably. I’ve moaned at Pires in this respect previously but today he did more than his share and did it very well. Hendrie had a shot blocked and Cole hooked clear but the Villa attacks began to peter out. Arsenal, on the other hand, were playing more and more keep ball. A late treble Villa substitution didn’t change a thing in that respect. You don’t care who their subs were so I won’t bore you with their names, quite apart from which I didn’t bother to note them.
Ray was getting stuck in and enjoying himself, Kolo had a good run and a half-decent shot whilst in response a limp Angel header was easy for Jens. In the two minutes added time Henry looked for his hatrick but had a left footed shot saved. Full time, two goals and three more points.
This then was a good three points that were hard earned but well deserved. O’Leary seemed to think that Villa were hard done by, but conveniently forgot the fact that had we needed to go up a gear we would have done so. Not only did we pick up three points at Villa, but the Mancs blew it at Wolves and Chelski couldn’t break down Birmingham at home.
What a good weekend for the Arsenal.