Better late than never

WITH Aston Villa in such fine recent fettle, Sunday’s clash was always likely to be a stiff test. But when the Gunners lined up with our talismanic skipper on the bench, still nursing a tight hamstring, I have to admit I feared the worst.

Although I’m highly embarrassed to admit that the skipper wasn’t the only absentee at kick-off on Sunday.

To my horror, it was 15 minutes before kick-off when I finally woke up so instead of missing much of the first-half while scurrying around to the ground, I decided to watch it on the box and to bomb around there during the break. The way things subsequently transpired, this proved a most sensible compromise.

Despite a lack of incisiveness, the first 45 minutes was anything but dull. Still I was delighted to be dashing out the door with the game still delicately balanced at 0-0. Mind you, I’m not sure my arrival on the scene was quite so significant as Cesc’s appearance!

From what I’ve seen of their recent performances, I expected Villa to pose more of a threat going forward. The sight of John Carew always reminds me of his gut-wrenching goal for Valencia that deprived us of a place in a Champions League semi-final. It’s only when seen up close, towering over the likes of Sagna, that you appreciate quite what a colossus Carew is. But he, Heskey and Agbonlahor all proved pretty ineffectual on Sunday.

After the success of their ‘smash and grab’ tactics against us last season, perhaps O’Neill was guilty of being overly cautious in his efforts to produce a repeat performance. Still the visitors toiled so tirelessly to deny us time on the ball that it was inevitable that their efforts would eventually take their toll, with the masterful introduction of Fabregas and Walcott having the maximum psychological impact.

Fab proved to be a ‘special team’ all on his own. Only last week I bemoaned the fact that we’re bereft of a Gerrard type player, with a personality big enough to single-handedly grab tight games by the scruff of the neck.

As if we needed reminding, Cesc once again proved himself to be the conductor, capable of encouraging a veritable symphony from Wenger’s orchestra. The euphoric scenes of jubilation on the terraces confirmed how essential his contribution was to such a significant triumph.

Optimistic Gooners will claim it keeps us in the frame for a title push. Perhaps more importantly, so long as we remain the pundits’ dark horse for a title challenge, we’re definitely not being dragged back down into the dog-eat-dog battle for fourth below.

The Tigers’ laudable display inspired some false hopes but the prospect of Hull helping us to hang onto second was always an unlikely illusion. Surely we can expect Man United to kick on in the New Year, but in their current insipid guise we’ve little to fear from Fergie’s mob.

We’ve once again witnessed a weekend of football where less acclaimed clubs have demonstrated sufficient quality and determination to upset the odds. Yet while we can catch anyone in a sprint, for all the current inconsistency of Ancelotti’s Blues, it’s hard to have total faith in us matching Chelsea’s strength in depth over the course of the entire marathon.

We might cope with Fab’s absence if Diaby can continue his fine recent form, but it remains to be seen how our defence holds up with Song away on African Cup of Nations duty. As an almost ever-present this season, Alex has matured into his role as a muscular, protective screen in front of our back four. I hope he’ll forgive me if I pray for Cameroon’s premature exit from the competition, when his absence could prove as significant to us, as Drogba’s might be for Chelsea.

Meanwhile, I was chuffed to bits to be returning to work wearing a wide, smug smile. With everyone aware of my absence on Sunday, the level of mickey-taking would’ve been absolutely unbearable if we’d lost. Then again, this would’ve been small potatoes compared to the sort of mirth to be had at my expense if I’d managed to sleep my way through the whole marvellous occasion!

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up