Fitness was to be a key factor in this game. Wenger recalled Gael Clichy for this game, moving him into left midfield in place of Robert Pires, while continuing with the youth of Van Persie up front. He also restored Cesc Fabregas to the starting line up. This gave us the freshness that we required after a gruelling game at Newcastle in midweek.
However, we made a faltering start to the game, with Charlton looking the livelier of the two sides. Manuel Almunia was called into early action on more than one occasion, as we weathered a storm of early Charlton pressure. Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure kept us strong at the back as we gradually forced our way further up the pitch, and began to show signs of our normal passing game. Having soaked up the pressure for the first twenty minutes, we finally found our feet, and maintained a good spell of possession football. We finally registered a shot on target, and pressed on from that point. As we have done so often this season, we rattled the opposition with our one touch ball play and this lead to us taking the lead in the 35th minute through Freddie Ljungberg.
Paddy picked up the ball just inside the opposition box. He powered forward and motored into the box. Here he looked up and found Freddie, who showed no trouble in turning his man and rifling the ball into the net. That’s the kind of goal that wins championships; when you can score despite not being at your best. Credit must also be given to Van Persie for showing awareness in picking up the loose ball.
We were looking good to take our lead into half time, until Mark Halsey blew up for a slightly dubious free kick thirty yards from goal. It was to be El Karkouri to take it, and with us all expecting it to hit the wall, we were left stunned by a superb effort, which left Almunia with no chance and handed Charlton a some what undeserved equaliser coming against the run of play. I feared for what that goal may have done to us psychologically, and what a lift that may have given them, but these fears were dispelled early in the second half.
Our well earned second came from the boot of the immense Freddie Ljungberg in the 48th minute.
Van Persie again picked up the loose ball to start off the move. Cesc Fabregas showed off his amazing vision by slipping a back heeled pass into the path of Ljungberg, who took the ball on into the area, before letting rip with a fierce effort which lashed in. It was no more than we deserved for our brilliant start to the half. Of course, Alan Curbishley had to have a moan about Van Persie`s “offside” positioning as the ball came out, but with the interpretations of the offside laws as they are, it is there to be exploited.
Freddie was by this stage simply on fire! There was no stopping him, as he chased down every ball, made every pass an accurate one, and played for the team. The chants of “Freddie, Freddie” and “We Love You Freddie” rang out loud and clear from the away end.
While we were starting to look comfortable with our lead, I, as well as many other Gooners, knew only too well that a one goal advantage is far too slender an advantage to sit back on. The jitters kicked in a little, as Charlton briefly rallied, loading balls into the box and putting us under the cosh. The only break came from a Thierry Henry free kick which was headed off the line and away. The poor touches and the bad balls crept into our play, and we would clearly need another if we were to see this game out easily.
Step forward Robin Van Persie. This was his reward for sticking at it all game. He had chased every lost cause, and finally he found some joy, as the Charlton back line disobeyed the golden rule of defending. They let the ball bounce past two players, and Van the Man burst into the box, looked up and unleashed an unstoppable volley shot into the bottom. Kiely had no chance, and as we all celebrated a valuable three points, the relief on the players faces was clear for all to see.
The game fizzled out in the last five minutes, with Charlton admitting defeat and us comfortable in victory. This was a professional display by a somewhat depleted Arsenal team, missing key players like Gilberto, Flamini, Lauren, Edu, Bergkamp and Reyes. We defended resolutely and attacked in spells with real class, the sort that you can’t buy into your team. Our spirit shone through, and we will take this league campaign all the way down to the wire.
A happy new year to you all – may it be one filled with many trophies for the Gunners!!